How To Handle an Emotional Shutdown

By Eric Helmsley | | Dating
How To Handle an Emotional Shutdown
Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

When you picture the worst part of being in a relationship, a horrible fight is often the first place you land. Harsh words flung across the room, voices raised, tempers flared. As bad as those can be, though, the silent treatment can feel even worse.

Knowing how to communicate with someone who shuts down emotionally can be an unbelievably important skill in helping you navigate the frosty air of a shutdown-induced cold shoulder.

So what should you do?

How to communicate with someone who shuts down

“Someone shutting down in an argument is incredibly frustrating,” said Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “Especially when all you want to do is work on finding a solution to a problem in the middle of an argument or serious situation.”

A person ceasing to speak, walking away from a conversation or otherwise appearing to “shut down” may represent a person in distress. But it can also be genuinely hard for a partner to watch this happen during the middle of a difficult conversation, argument or confrontation. But continuing to press the issue can backfire if you don’t handle it well.

“We all want to be as helpful as possible in supporting our partners, even if that’s hard to do in the moment,” Caraballo said. “Sometimes our discomfort or frustration with that shutdown leads us to push more in that moment—which can cause the person to further retreat.”

One isolated incident might not be the end of the world, but it could certainly develop into an unhealthy pattern if it’s repeated, he noted—leading to “increasing frustration and resentment if partners fall into this pattern of the person chasing/inviting more conversation and the other person feeling like they continually need to retreat.”

So to try and help you avoid that increasing frustration and resentment altogether, here are five tips for how to communicate when your partner shuts down emotionally:

1. Pause the conversation

Step one if you notice your partner withdrawing or shutting down, Caraballo said, is to press pause. “One of the best things we can do as partners is to give the other person a moment if we notice they’re checking out,” he said. “Just pause for a minute.”

This may seem counterintuitive—after all, if you want to have a conversation and your partner isn’t engaging, pausing just gives them what they want while denying you what you want.

However, your partner is shutting down because they can’t really process the conversation in its current form. Trying to press forward while they’re in retreat mode won’t get you the conversation you’re craving—it’ll only make it harder to obtain. Showing right off the bat that you can recognize when they’re struggling, even if they’re not expressing it verbally, can be huge.

2. Give it a second shot

After having paused the conversation for a bit, try to re-engage. After acknowledging that the conversation was difficult and giving them a little bit of space—whether it’s 30 seconds or 5 to 10 minutes—you can “check in with them and see if they’re able to still meaningfully engage to resolve the conflict,” Carabello said.

Sometimes, a brief period of calm and an acknowledgment that things were getting heated is all your partner really needs to feel capable of continuing the conversation in a more communicative manner.

3. Check in later

If the brief pause method doesn’t do any good and your partner’s still in shutdown mode, Caraballo said, it’s time for a longer break.

“It’s good to take a break and table the conversation for a specified later time (maybe agree to a few hours later, for example),” he said, although, depending on the subject matter, it could also be a few days later if there’s no rush to come to a decision.

“Then,” Caraballo said, “follow up as scheduled and continue to work through things.”

4. Discuss the pattern

One thing Caraballo suggested for dealing with this kind of thing in a more broad sense is to discuss the very fact of these emotional shutdowns with your partner.

They might not recognize the exact nature of the issue, and saying something such as, “Hey, I’ve noticed that when we engage in tough conversations sometimes you seem to withdraw or shut down. Is that something we can talk about?” could go a long way toward clarifying things.

“If you notice shutting down is a pattern, then it’s a good idea to share that with your partner when things are calmer,” Caraballo explained. “That feedback could be helpful in them gaining insight and potentially making a commitment to work on it themselves.”

5. Zero in on a trigger

One important thing, when it comes to this kind of shutdown reaction, is what, exactly, triggers it.

“If you know or learn that conflict is highly triggering for your partner, then talking through ways they can self-soothe—and you can remind them to do so in more difficult moments—is a great way to show that you care,” Caraballo said.

It also functions, he noted, as a means of encouraging your partner to “take accountability for how they respond to conflict.”

As he pointed out, “navigating disputes is a normal and healthy relationship skill to have.”

Ultimately, if this isn’t something you can work through together, bringing in a third party, like a couples counselor, or asking if your partner would consider working on this aspect of their emotional life in therapy, could help things progress toward a place where you can engage in disagreements without your partner completely shutting down.

What is an emotional shutdown?

The definition of an emotional shutdown is right there in the name—it’s when a person, instead of processing or confronting strong emotional feelings, stops engaging altogether. According to Caraballo, an emotional shutdown manifests itself as something called “stonewalling,” meaning they won’t continue the discussion or talk to you at all. They may even refuse to remain in your presence.

The term, which he noted was popularized by the Gottman Institute, “often looks like someone, especially in times of high conflict, turning away or no longer responding to their partner.”

Unfortunately, while it’s typically an instinctive defense mechanism against a perceived emotional threat, it can be easily misunderstood as an emotional attack of its own.

“It’s often thought of as a manipulative tactic in the mainstream,” said Caraballo, “but research tells us that it’s often a response to feeling overwhelmed and lacking the skills to navigate high-tension moments.”

Why do people shut down emotionally?

Sometimes the person in question doesn’t feel capable of expressing their feelings, but it’s also possible that they themselves don’t know the reason.

“In more serious cases, this could be an automatic defensive response in those who have histories of trauma,” said Caraballo. “Retreating internally or dissociating may even be subconscious to them.”

“In other situations,” he noted, “many people might otherwise feel overwhelmed in the rising tension and not know how to engage with the emotional material effectively.”

One aspect is the ability to keep calm during moments of rising stress, also known as “self-soothing.” If your partner needs to shut down to avoid that stress, rather than work through it, Caraballo said, it may be because “they may lack the skills to self-soothe in those moments.”

Improving at self-soothing, he noted, can be helpful for people for whom emotional shutdowns are common.

“They can also work with a therapist to develop more effective communication skills so that they can become better partners in high-conflict moments"

Conclusion

Emotional shutdowns can be hard to understand for the person experiencing them, as well as for a romantic partner trying to pierce through what can feel like a wall of silence and deflection.

More often than not, though, trying to push harder to get the other person to open up will only result in more hurt feelings—without resolving the issue.

Instead, acknowledging the difficult moment, giving your partner space to experience their emotions, resuming the conversation later and trying to address the issue of shutdowns itself, as well as a potential root cause, could have a much better success rate in the long run.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.