Here’s what causes him to shut down — and how to stop it.
A lack of emotional intelligence may be why men pull away during fights, but learning how to have effective communication skills while arguing can help.
Many relationships suffer from a lack of emotional intelligence, which can harm the emotional health of your connection with your partner. In every relationship, there will be conflict; either arguments that escalate or disagreements that leave you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by your emotional states.
But if your relationship has a “pursue-withdraw” dynamic, as many men and women do, then you might be causing each other emotional distress without realizing it.
This dynamic, where one person reacts emotionally and the other pulls back, might be one reason why your man seems to “shut down” whenever you need him the most.
It might seem like he’s he in the room but definitely not in the conversation. Do you get frustrated when he doesn’t respond to your need to be heard?
The majority of couples in conflict polarize, which means they may separate and adopt two very different ways of coping with relationship struggles. Emotionally focused therapists use the terms “pursuer” and “withdrawer” to describe these positions.
The “pursuer” is the one who engages and continues to try and work out the conflict or issue. The withdrawer, however, pulls away. And the more the pursuer pushes the issue, the more the withdrawer removes themselves emotionally.
This kind of behavior is a sign that you and your partner need to increase your emotional intelligence and learn how to give emotional support for each other.
Often, pursuers are female and withdrawers are male — which may explain why when you’re upset your guy seems to “shut down” emotionally. Though the opposite is sometimes the case, it’s more common for men to withdraw and women to pursue.
Relationships with two withdrawers can find themselves immobilized; rarely do you find two pursuers in a relationship.
When pursuers feel insecure, they express their emotions in an attempt to gain emotional reassurance from their partners. They want to know that their partner feels as deeply about an issue as they do.
If their partner does not respond with emotional authenticity and accurately mirror their emotions, the pursuer becomes even more insecure. They try again with even more emotional intensity to get the point across.
The expectation is that more emotion will surely pull at the heartstrings of their beloved. But that’s not the case.
If the lack of emotional response persists, the pursuer often expresses emotion by going on the offensive. They may use exasperation — doggedly continuing their argument — to try to get the withdrawer to engage, and the conflict escalates.
Withdrawers become immobilized when confronted by their pursuing partner’s heightened emotion. They tend to be uncomfortable expressing, or even feeling, emotion in the first place.
They’ll often try to come across as unaffected by the emotion aimed at them. In the withdrawer’s mind, expressing emotion will only make the situation worse.
He may be afraid that if he allows himself to express his feelings, an angry outburst could result, and that will not be productive. It’s certainly not what the pursuing partner is going after.
Why does your man shut down emotionally? Well in most cases, a withdrawer feels overwhelmed and does not know how to use emotion to respond to the angry protest of his pursuing partner.
The way to break this cycle is by increasing your emotional intelligence and awareness.
This pursue-withdraw dynamic creates the perfect storm in nearly every troubled relationship.
The pursuer’s emotional flooding, or overload, causes the withdrawer to almost automatically flee and shut down emotionally rather than fight for the relationship. This pushes the primitive panic button in the pursuer.
Pursuers must see their partner’s emotion. They must know that their partner cares about their pain by responding with emotion. If this does not happen, the pursuit will continue on and on.
Couples caught in this negative cycle of interaction repeatedly fall into the same pattern of conflict. This is confusing and painful, and often hurts the relationship.
In time, the smallest disagreement can send you into the spiral of another negative cycle.
When this happens, rather than giving each other the emotional reassurance necessary to restore intimacy, each person defends why he or she is hurting the other.
The cycle is driven by unacknowledged vulnerable emotions, most of which are based on the couple’s fears of losing the relationship.
One would think it would be so simple for people who love each other to simply acknowledge how afraid they are of losing each other; nothing could be further from the truth.
When the withdrawer is afraid of losing love, they’ll instinctively move into a posture of self-protection. However, this reaction only validates your partner’s fear that you really don’t care. And your self-protection — emotional withdrawal — escalates our partner’s fear.
Pursuers usually trigger withdrawers by blaming. Withdrawers trigger pursuers by silence and facial expressions that are invalidating.
A monotone verbal response can send a triggering message to an angry pursuer that her partner doesn’t care.
Withdrawing men sometimes need to learn to identify their emotions before they can express them. Even though their voice tones and facial expressions give them away, they are often unaware of what they are actually feeling
It takes time for them to connect discomfort in their chest with fear, or the pain in their gut with anger, which is a big step in increasing their emotional intelligence.
But with time — and help if they need it — they can learn to make the connection between discomfort in their body and the actual emotions they are feeling.
It’s the lack of emotional intelligence and awareness that makes their emotionally hurt pursuing partner feel crazy with frustration. But the truth is that they cannot show emotional compassion about their partner’s emotions when they can’t feel their own emotions.
It’s not enough for them to say they’re sorry. They must express that they’re sorry with emotion if the apology is going to heal the pursuer’s hurt.
Withdrawers have often spent a lifetime disconnecting from their emotions. And it takes time for them to recognize what they’re feeling. And then to be able to express feelings for their partner who they have emotionally injured, too. This often makes them feel stupid and awkward, having to learn how to feel their own and their partner’s emotions.
Acknowledging their struggle and that they need help with emotional communication takes courage. If your partner feels disrespected because they struggle with emotional intelligence and communication, they may never learn to open up.
Feeling understood and safe is critical to the couple’s progress toward escaping the negative cycle.
When each person can stop reacting, attacking, or withdrawing, then the negative cycle is deactivated. This is done by letting go of accusations and by simply expressing the vulnerable emotions you’re each feeling.
Each partner feels loved and understood when their emotions are “mirrored” back to them.
Once couples can see the negative cycle and acknowledge their fearful emotions, they can begin a new pattern together without pursue-withdraw.
Knowing why your man shuts down emotionally will go a very long way in getting you to a position where you can both improve your emotional intelligence and heal from your negative cycles.
I hope you also get that you’re not alone. There are many couples out there who are tired of their partner withdrawing and shutting down emotionally in their relationships.
By taking the steps you need, and enlisting the help of a trusted therapist if you feel you can’t do it on your own, your pursuit will soften, and your withdrawing partner will listen and respond to you without shutting down emotionally.
He’ll no longer just be in the room. But he’ll be present in the conversation. He’ll be emotionally intelligent, just the way you need him to be.
This post was previously published on www.yourtango.com and is republished here with permission.
About Michael W. Regier, PhD
Dr. Michael Regier is a certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and Supervisor. He teaches couples the big picture of attachment, helps them heal relationship injuries and create new attachment bonds to promote healthy patterns of living and loving. Michael maintains a busy couples practice while supervising and teaching therapists and psychiatric residents.
As a therapist, coach, writer and educator I help couples find the love and security they need to live happy authentic lives.
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