If your spouse shuts down emotionally and won’t talk to you, it’s unnerving, frustrating, and confusing. How do you help someone who seems unwilling or unable to respond to you, let alone change their behavior? Where do you even begin when the dynamic is one-sided?
It’s critical to understand that it’s not you that your spouse is responding negatively toward, but some underlying emotional trigger. Once you can figure out what is causing this emotional dysregulation, you’ll be able to identify how to avoid, or at least limit future emotional shutdowns. At the same time, you can help your spouse open up emotionally and become more comfortable sharing and expressing their feelings.
Why People Shut Down Emotionally
If your spouse has a tendency toward avoiding conflict, they will withdraw emotionally even at the smallest sign of a conflict starting. They likely have past experience with conflict ending very badly or they just haven’t yet figured how to handle the emotional triggers that come up during conflict. So, instead of dealing with the situation head-on, they shut down. They’re simply at a loss and the dominant coping mechanism that’s accessible to them at the moment is to turn away from the situation.
Low Emotional Intelligence
Low emotional intelligence can include among other features an inability to identify or express their emotions. This is specifically known as alexithymia. People with low emotional intelligence may have a tougher time with self-reflection and putting their feelings into words. When big emotions arise, they’re difficult to process. It feels easier to withdraw instead of talking things through or sharing feelings.
It’s important to note that you should avoid labeling your partner as having low emotional intelligence. It is likely to feel judgmental to them, so instead help them feel more comfortable to explore their emotional experience so they can begin to increase their competency.
4 Strategies To Help Your Spouse Connect With Their Emotions
Helping your spouse process and express their feelings requires deep empathy as well as an understanding of the context which causes them to withdraw. You’ll need to figure out what’s their fear, what are they avoiding, and what may motivate them to open up. You may be able to piece this together but don’t share your analysis. It may make your spouse feel judged or insecure and shut down further. Instead, use the knowledge of their background and emotional triggers to help your spouse overcome their limitations constructively.
1. Model Emotional Intelligence
Make a habit of sharing your feelings with your spouse. Paint a clear picture of your feelings, both positive and negative. This way, you’ll model how to name and share your feelings. Especially important is to verbally illustrate that when your spouse is with you, it is safe and appropriate to express a full range of feelings without fear of judgment or rejection. Articulate your intentions to your spouse so they understand why staying emotionally engaged is important:
“I want to know your thoughts and feelings so that I can feel closer to you and we can have a stronger relationship.”
Share what your emotions are and how they feel in your body. For example, joy may feel light, like you’re soaring through the sky. Anger and disappointment may feel like a pit in your stomach or a bodily heaviness. By connecting the emotional and the physical, you’re giving your spouse a way to bridge the gap and have another system of expression.
2. Understand The History and Trauma Behind Emotional Withdrawal
Oftentimes, people who struggle with their emotions have had past trauma where emotions were unsafe. This may have happened in childhood or in adulthood (usually pre-marriage), but the overall impact on behavior is the same. Perhaps they were bullies or abused physically or emotionally when they tried to express themselves in the past.. Or it could be that a previous relationship or breakup left your spouse extremely vulnerable or terribly rejected.
Their shutdown could be a way of self-preservation. But it can also be an attempt to save you from their issues, troubled past, or history of trauma. Once you make an effort to understand the history and trauma that may lead to shut down, you’ll be in a better position to help your spouse heal. It will also help you approach the situation with understanding and empathy instead of consciously or unconsciously blaming them for their emotional struggles.
3. Expect & Celebrate Incremental Change
Overcoming emotional roadblocks will take a long time, so be patient and expect slow, incremental change. It’s unrealistic to expect speedy and sweeping changes, even if you’ve identified the reasons behind your spouse’s tendency to shut down. So set your expectations accordingly. Sometimes a simple “I’m feeling numb” can signify huge progress. If your spouse is able to make any headway, no matter how small, be supportive and encouraging and build on that.
4. Help Them Get Connected To Their Physical Experience
The mind-body connection is very real and can be rebuilt over time. See if you can help expand and increase your spouse’s awareness of their physicality. Offer a hug or massage, or simply hold hands when watching a movie or taking a walk. Emphasize how good physical connection feels to you:
“I really like it when we snuggle under the blanket and watch TV together. It makes me feel cozy and content.”
Build positive emotional associations to these physical experiences. See if your spouse may want to join you in doing some exercise like yoga, swimming or hiking. These activities are beneficial for the mind and the body. Similarly, meditation and mindfulness practices can make a world of difference. You can go even deeper by looking into tantric practices as well.
When To Seek Professional Help
If you are not able to make progress despite a joint effort between you and your partner, or if your spouse resists your help, it may be time to get some professional help. A trained therapist should be able to shine a light on the root causes and circumstances of emotional withdrawal. You will also learn practical communication strategies you and your spouse can apply in your daily interactions. Even if your spouse is uncooperative about seeking help, you can start working with a therapist one-on-one. It’s always useful to take care of your own emotional wellbeing before trying to help someone else.