How to Communicate with Someone Who Shuts Down.
Are you trying to communicate with someone who shuts down? “He tells me whatever I want to hear so that we can stop talking about it as soon as possible,” Mary says, huffily, arranging the pillows of The Couples Counseling Couch behind her. It’s our second marriage counseling session, and she’s explaining, “I bring up anything, and immediately he gets defensive when I tell him how I feel. I don’t feel heard in my relationship, and it’s impossible to get him to talk about his feelings with me. It’s like talking to a wall.” She goes on. “If I really, really push it and go after him sometimes he’ll react, and we’ll finally address something, but it’s like I have to totally freak out to get him to go there with me. Then he says that I’m talking down to him, or that it feels like I have ‘anger issues‘ that are the problem in our relationship. I feel blamed when I’m actually the one being totally invalidated. It’s so frustrating. Yes, I get mad at him, and I don’t want to be that person, but I feel like it’s the only way to get him to listen.”
Is Your Partner Someone Who Shuts Down During Communication? Do They Withdraw?
Can you relate to what Mary is saying? If so, you’re not alone. It’s incredibly common to have one person in a relationship shutting down during conflict, which increases the frustration and loneliness (and often the volume) of the other. You might be tempted to think that this is a “man thing.” Not true: a significant portion of relationships have women who withdraw in tense moments, and male partners who pursue. This dynamic also happens in same sex relationships with both men and women.
Whether you’re trying to get through to your guy or your girl it can feel like the harder you try to communicate, the harder they try to avoid. Sometimes they defend themselves — invalidating what you’re saying in the process — and sometimes they simply refuse to participate in the conversation.
All you want to do is for them to listen to you. Hear you. Respond to you. But whenever you try to communicate, they clamp down like a clam under assault. You try harder: raising the volume, raising the intensity, and getting more passionate. But the harder you try to connect, the harder they work to block you.
When Communicating with Someone Who Shuts Down Becomes a Pattern
If this communication style turns into a pattern, you might stop believing that you’ll ever get through. You might eventually give up on trying to connect. And that is a very serious problem. Because relationships fail when people stop believing that their partner can be who they want or need them to be.
Let’s not do that. Instead, keep reading for some new ideas to think about, and some different communication strategies to try.
If You’re With Someone Who Shuts Down, and You Want to Get Your Withdrawn Partner to Open Up:
1) Stop Being Scary
I say this a bit humorously, but seriously: It’s often the case that “pursuing” partners can get… intense. (I know I certainly can when I’m not able to get my point across). And it’s totally understandable — when you’re feeling frustrated, shut out, unheard, and uncared for it hurts. It’s the most natural thing in the world to get more intense and “passionate” in an effort to make yourself be heard. But consider how you may appear when you get that way.
It may be difficult for others to come towards you, and maintain soft, caring feelings about you, or fully appreciate your needs when you’re yelling at them. Interacting with obviously angry people feels threatening. The louder you get, the less people can hear you. Take a breath, tone it down, and you’ll get better results.
2) Practice Vulnerability
If your partner is someone who shuts down, help your partner move towards you by allowing them to see your pain. Dig under the anger and connect with the hurt or fear that is fueling it. When you can express to your partner that you are feeling lonely and miss them, that you are feeling overwhelmed and need their help, or that you’re feeling frightened and need to know that they care — they will see you as softer and more approachable. It mobilizes their love for you, rather than their survival instinct.
3) Be Diplomatic
People like to be praised. Focus on the positive exceptions, and encourage more of what you want. If you must address something you don’t like, sandwich it in at least two positive comments and make sure it’s a “request” and not a “criticism.” Does this skill feel challenging when you’re angry? Consider your options when you’re feeling annoyed that your partner is checking out and not following through with household tasks (for example):
- Option A: “I need to tell you what an inconsiderate a**hole you are, and I want you to sit here and agree with me.” [Not going to end well.]
- Option B: “I really appreciate everything you do around here, and I especially liked the way you took out the trash this morning. Would you mind helping me with dinner tonight to? That way we’ll have more time to hang out tonight. I like it when we can just enjoy each other and relax in the evenings.”
Which option would go over better with you?
4) When Your Partner is Someone Who Shuts Down, Focus on Solutions
Grinding away at complaints about things you don’t like makes people feel overwhelmed, and defensive. When you get clear about what you DO want before coming into a conversation, and ask for that in a positive way your partner will be much better able to hear you. Furthermore, when they know what you want, they can give it to you.
5) Get Support When You’re With Someone Who Shuts Down
Sometimes, no matter how kind and gentle you are with someone who shuts down, they will still shut down, avoid, and defend. This is especially true if a negative cycle has overtaken your relationship. Even if you are changing, they still expect you to be the same (and react to you accordingly).
It may also be the case that they are engaging in old, entrenched ways of relating that existed long before you came along. If you suspect that either of these things are happening, it may be wise to get both of you in front of a good marriage counselor or relationship coach who can help you untangle the impact of past relationship patterns, and focus on how to relate in a healthy way going forward.
I hope these ideas help you reconnect if you’re in a relationship with someone who shuts down and avoids conflict. For more detailed, in-depth advice on how to communicate with a withdrawn partner and get things back on track, check out my communication podcasts:
• How to Communicate With a Partner Who is Upset (This one can really help your withdrawn partner understand YOU, and what happens to you emotionally when they refuse to talk or engage with you).
Wishing you all the best on your journey of growth together…
PS: One fantastic, low-key, low-anxiety way to begin opening up lines of communication is to do it without actually talking. (Really!) Take our free “How Healthy is Your Relationship” Quiz and send it to your partner to take too. (It’s set up so you can send them an email invitation from within the quiz). Then you can share your results with each other.
Just be prepared to learn new things about how your partner has been feeling about your relationship! Pro tip: Even if you learn that there are aspects of your relationship that don’t feel good for them right now, it’s a positive thing because they are giving you the chance to learn and grow together. If you respond to their disclosures with empathy, curiosity, and responsiveness it might start to restore emotional safety and begin turning things around. Here’s the link to get access to the quiz. xoxo, LMB
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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