Steps to Deal with a Shut Down Significant Other

Couple sitting on sofa with arms folded, looking angry
Dealing with a significant other who has shut down. Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating for some people in a relationship than trying to communicate with a partner who is shut down, withdrawn, or just doesn't seem to care. This article offers some advice about what may be going on in your relationship if your partner is shut down, and some practical advice about how to get them to open up.

Step 1: Find out what is really going on

Dr. Sue Johnson, an internationally known relationship expert and psychologist, has identified three destructive patterns that are all too common in relationships.

One of these patterns has been found by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman to be associated with divorce before couples reach their five year anniversary if it is not stopped.

If you find that your partner is shut down, you may be caught in the all too common pattern in which one partner pursues the other, and the other withdraws. The more you pursue, for example, the more he withdraws, and around and around you go. The pursuing partner feels more and more frustrated, can become angry and critical, and the withdrawing partner just wants to disappear.

You may also wonder whether your partner is just depressed. Find out if your partner seems to meet the criteria for depression and if so, you may wish to have an honest conversation about your concerns and how they might be able to get some help, which may include seeing a psychotherapist.

Step 2: Recognize the impact that you have on your partner

Most people have more of an impact on their partners than they realize.

Pay attention to how you treat your partner and whether anything that you are saying or doing may not be especially inviting, or even hostile. If you are feeling invisible, as many people do when they are dealing with someone who is shut down, it only makes sense that you would be frustrated and angry.

You may have no idea that you even matter to your partner. More likely than not, you matter a great deal, but your partner may not be moved to connect with you if it seems that you are frustrated and angry at him all of the time.

Step 3: Try a new approach

Your frustration is totally valid and is shared by many who are in relationships with partners who are shut down. The problem is that your frustration is not going to help you get closer if that is all you show your partner. The definition of insanity is said by some to be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Getting more frustrated, angrier and louder is not what you need to do in order to pull your partner toward you, but it will reinforce this negative pattern that you already may be experiencing.

The solution? Try a new approach. While being authentic and honest with yourself, show a different side of your experience to your partner. If you are really feeling invisible, that probably feels more than just frustrating.

Perhaps in addition to feeling frustrated and angry, you are scared, sad or question whether your partner really cares. Take a risk, show some vulnerability, and your partner will be more likely to move toward you instead of away from you. It can be difficult and may take a few tries, but it is worth it to achieve a stronger connection and healthier relationship.

If these three steps do not cut it and it still feels impossible to reach your partner, please know that you are not alone. Read Sue Johnson's book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love for more information, or even better, learn about Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and consider giving it a try.

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