• Debbie Russell

I can't talk to my partner - Emotional Shutdown in relationships

My friend was telling me about her relationship difficulties - “It’s like I just can’t even begin to ask him anything, or tell him even the smallest things, and I especially can’t tell him how I feel.. the way he reacts you’d think I was asking him to cut his own arm off, or that I’m blaming him for everything!” she said.

In the past my friend (we'll call her Jane) had expressed herself in different ways - arguing, tensing, shouting, crying, removing herself from the situation to calm down, even 'the silent treatment'...  But over time, it had become so anxiety provoking trying to plan what to say, and when and how to say it, just to try to avoid a negative response, that she’d reached the point where even thinking about talking to her partner was producing a feeling of confusion and an inability to speak, which Jane was finding pretty distressing.

The relationship was suffering and Jane found she was experiencing all kinds of emotions: anger and even contempt at her partners reactions, guilt for ‘upsetting him’, frustration at not being able to ‘get through to him’ and incompetence for not being able to ‘make him understand’.  She’d begun to wonder: “is it me?”.  Not resolving all these distressing emotions was taking its toll on her - she’d even considered asking her GP for some antidepressants, even though she hated the idea of taking tablets…

This is an example of ‘emotional shutdown’ in a relationship.

Although part of Jane’s mind ‘knows’ that she has nothing to fear physically from her partner, and also ‘knows’ that he is not intending to cause her emotional harm, her brain and body are reacting (in other words she is ‘feeling’) as if she does and he is.  Yet she doesn’t ‘fight’ and she doesn't ‘flee’ - instead she feels paralysed, and the worst thing is: she doesn’t feel she can do anything about this.

It’s this conflict between the ‘knowing’ and the ‘feeling’ that is causing the problem. The automatic fight or flight response, which we humans developed a long time ago in our evolution, keeps us safe by getting our body ready for action whenever we perceive any threat or danger (see previous blog ‘Irrational anxiety and fear - why me?’) (1).  However if we find ourselves in a situation where certain death is imminent- there seems to be no way out - we will freeze (‘play dead’), during which time we can literally stop feeling, thinking and even moving - we feel disconnected from reality, can’t think straight and emotions become numbed. This gives us a chance for the ‘threat’ to lose interest and leave us alone, at which point we can spring back into fight or flight action and run away or fight back. As David Puder (2) says:  ‘In fight or flight, at some level we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.’

How does this relate to Jane’s experience?  To understand this we need to know that our ‘autonomic nervous system’ has different parts, each of which can affect us very differently…

The ‘Sympathetic’ nerves control our fight/flight reaction - when these are stimulated we react by ‘fighting’ or ‘fleeing’. The ‘Parasympathetic’ nerves control our ‘rest and digest’ reaction - when these are stimulated we relax and slow down.  Part of this parasympathetic system has come to be called the ‘social communication and engagement system’ - a mixture of calming and activation - controlled by a complex network of nerves called the ventral vagus (2).  It is this social engagement system that helps us navigate our relationships - when we feel ‘safe’. However the vagus nerve also has another branch - the dorsal vagus - which is responsible for making us freeze when our brain perceives that we are not safe to the extent that death may be imminent - taking that ‘slow down and relax’ response to the extreme, shutting us down.  This is different from the fight or flight response.

Remember: when someone freezes, their body is trying to protect them. Freezing is an evolutionary survival tactic, similar to when an animal plays dead. It’s not a conscious decision, its out of anyone’s control. It’s not about size, strength or physical training.  Anyone can freeze.

So why does the brain think the body needs protecting in a situation like Jane’s? Well, as described in my previous blog (1), the brain is a loose pattern matching organ, and it remembers previous situations it perceived as life threatening (even if they weren’t!), it pattern matches to the current situation, and mistakenly thinks that here is another ‘life threatening’ situation.

Shouting in frustration, tensing up, balling the fists, bursting into tears, slamming out of the room, deliberately going into ‘silent mode’ and such, were all examples of Jane’s brain remembering the imagined ‘threat’ and automatically engaging the sympathetic nervous system to go into fight or flight mode.  But after many repetitions of this, her brain realised that this just wasn’t resolving the problem, became overwhelmed by this perceived  ‘threat’, and the ‘shutdown' part of the parasympathetic nervous system was triggered, as a survival mechanism; going into 'silent mode' no longer deliberate, but automatic.  In a way, the brain is tricking itself into believing there is no option to fight or flee, and so it puts Jane into a ‘freeze’.

To put it simply, repeatedly not resolving/processing this excess energy/anxiety keeps adding to the emotional pressure cooker by increasing Jane’s base stress level, and an upward vicious spiral of distress ensues leading eventually to the emotional shutdown she described.

And when one partner is safely in their ‘social engagement’ mode or even in ‘fight or flight’, but the other is ‘freezing’ or shutting down - there is no chance of communicating effectively.

In non-stressful situations (when we are not in fight, flight or freeze), we are in ‘rest and relaxation’ mode and can connect happily with other people.  But when the very thought of interacting with your partner triggers off strong feelings of stress and anxiety, there is clearly a very big problem.

This kind of emotional shutdown can occur in relationships where one person has come to feel they cannot communicate well with the other person. This scenario might have developed over many years into a habit of communicating (or not) between the two partners, so it may take time and patience to change it.  However, when one person makes a change, however small, this automatically presents the other person with a different picture, and so gives them the opportunity to respond differently themselves.

We can make this happen by learning and practicing assertiveness.

There is an awful lot of material out there to help us learn about assertiveness - but in a nutshell, it’s the skill (which, like any skill, can be learned) of:

1. Stating the facts of the situation as you understand them

2. Stating how you feel about these facts, and owning your feelings as yours

3. Asking for what you want/need

4. Agreeing to disagree if necessary

5. Negotiating a compromise if possible

There needs to be NO accusing, blaming, exaggerating (“you always/never…”) assuming what the other is thinking or feeling, name calling or other forms of disrespect, or apportioning responsibility to the other for your feelings (“you make me feel…”)

For example, consider these two statements: 1. “You are always an aggressive idiot and you make me cross - just calm down!”;  2. “I’m hearing you shouting; when you shout, I feel scared and confused; I need for you to talk calmly with me.”

It may not be that the other person will respond far more positively to the second statement than the first - but it’s far more likely.

Notice that points 4 and 5 in the assertiveness list involve the other person. And there are no guarantees that the other person will respond as we wish.  The other person’s response is their responsibility, not yours (that’s why its called a ‘response’).   We cannot be in control of the other person, we are only in control of our own behaviour and thoughts, and we can only manage our own emotions.  We can expend a great deal of energy and trigger off many distressing emotions in ourselves by trying repeatedly to make the other person change their behaviour and thoughts, and this can only end in frustration and exhaustion.

Jane would need to calm her brain and body down sufficiently to be able to do this (and it can be really difficult to calm down when you are ‘in the moment’ and your anxiety has already been triggered.)  So it may be the case that the facts for her are ‘I’m feeling upset just now and I need to leave the room for a while.’  

It's possible for us to calm ourselves using breathing techniques and mindfulness, then, once the logical part of the brain comes back into play we can think about the situation more rationally and make more helpful decisions about what to do.

Jane tried telling her partner that when she asked him for something and he seemed to be expressing extreme stress in response, she experienced feelings of fear and confusion.  Once he got over the surprise (he had no idea she felt this way) they were able to talk about how their behaviour triggered off these emotions in each other, and started to find ways to let each other know when they were feeling like this, without blaming each other or making assumptions about how each of them was feeling.

People with low self esteem, problematic anxiety or depression may find doing this very difficult, and might need some help and support or coaching from a counsellor or therapist, both to learn how to calm down in the first place, and to manage their thoughts and emotions in order to make helpful choices regarding how they act.  Its worth noting that learning to be more assertive can have a very positive effect on someone’s self esteem in general.  Similarly, responses may have become so automatic over time that couples may need some help to begin to change their ways of communicating with each other.

One thing is certain: we all have to start with the person in the mirror, and work from there…

(1) Irrational Anxiety and Fear - Why me? by Debbie Russell

(2) Emotional shutdown - Understanding polyvagal theory, by David Puder.

(3) Being Polyvagal: The Polyvagal Theory Explained - Mental Health Education, Windhorse Talks, by Eric Friedland-Kays and Deb Dana

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