Shutting Down in the Relationship

It’s an oft-used expression to describe one way of handling our emotions, “shutting down.” But what is happening, and how do we handle it?

At home, it might be more obvious when you “shut down,” which is, admittedly, therapist-speak. The typical example I could give to you would be your partner asking things of you and/or being a bit more critical of something that has taken place within the relationship, and you seek solace in another room…where it’s calm. And a place where you can think — once the overwhelmed state you are in subsides. And where very little can actually get to you — the door is closed for a reason. Yes, that is one way of shutting down.

Unfortunately for that scenario that might seem calming to someone reading that (or excruciating, should you be the person that experiences that behavior in your partner), my therapy space has only one room, and very rarely would I say it’s “okay” for a partner to seek solace in the waiting area; I may ask a partner to leave on a rare occasion to try to work with a highly-escalated partner in a dynamic for the sake of coming together as a couple. However, I have found myself noticing, and pointing out, that even while a partner might be fully “communicating” in the therapy, that “shutting down” is actually still taking place.

Why is it called “shutting down”?

“Shutting down” is exactly as it is referred because it is the process by which we shut down, or turn off, any feelings we experience that are deeply uncomfortable. When something causes discomfort to us, and when we don’t know how to handle the experience, the easiest thing to do and often the thing that provides ourselves the immediate gratification, is to simply mitigate the experience. Get rid of it. Turn it off. Shut down.

We Go Up to Shut Down?

It seems ironic in the Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy model that the phrase we might use, “shutting down,” is actually represented as being above the dotted line of the infinity loop that we use to describe “the cycle.” Click on this link (insert button to click on that pulls up this diagram?: to see what I mean by the dotted line and infinity loop. Above the dotted line, there are perceptions, secondary emotions, and behaviors. Below, primary emotions and attachment longings and all of the vulnerability.

The phrase “shutting down” refers to the process of avoiding one’s vulnerability, and in the case of the infinity loop diagram, being above the dotted line. One doesn’t have to have an avoidant attachment style, either, to avoid his or her feelings. Instead, one just needs to be avoiding deeper feelings, things that if discussed openly would lead to a vulnerable and often far-too-uncomfortable experience, without the help of therapy. It is a human experience to be wary of these feelings, not a pathological one.

What is happening and what is an alternative?

As discussed previously, it doesn’t have to mean a complete exit on a physical level of the relationship dynamic. Someone who continually responds to their partner with defensiveness, such as by blaming their partner instead of looking at their own behavior introspectively, would be shutting down, for example.

Instead, thinking about the dynamic and the feelings that come up for his or her partner in the dynamic, can help the individual to stay present and not shut down. It is incredibly uncomfortable though for many people, which is why shutting down is a highly typical response. But, “staying in it,” and facing the discomfort, can lead someone to reach feelings of needing to matter to their partner, and the hurt they experience when they feel that they are not mattering. Instead of going away and being isolated in that pain, if they do not shut down, they can make that highly risky “reach” towards their partner, and if received, those feelings can be alleviated.

Or, we can slice that “reach” even thinner. I will discuss what I mean by “slicing it thinner” in my next blog post.