You’ve done this dance before.
You may have just started dating or you may be married for six years. Either way, a pattern is emerging.
You’ve just spent a nice time together. You felt so connected. Things have been feeling so easy and relaxed. You haven’t fought or had a misunderstanding. Nothing seems amiss.
Suddenly, without warning, he goes radio silent and shuts down.
He’s nothing but shrugs, one word answers, and denials of a problem. He’ll tell you that he’s tired or vaguely blame the shift on work.
You know something feels off and you have no clue as to why or what you might have done.
Here’s What NOT to Do.
Don’t immediately jump to conclusions that this has anything whatsoever to do with you. Don’t assume that he’s pissed, has met someone else, or has lost interest in you.
It feels like you’ve been abandoned and the relationship suddenly feels unsafe. That kicks in your fight or flight response and you’ll find yourself quickly scanning for problems. You’ll jump on the first bit of proof that there is one.
Relax. That’s just your anxiety talking.
His change in mood feels like whiplash and has left you shaken and feeling vulnerable. That’s understandable. Just don’t start believing everything you’re thinking.
Take a deep breath. Until he tells you that you’re the problem, don’t assume that you are. It’s on him to tell you what’s up and until he does, you cannot do his work for him. Imagining all kinds of reasons for his upset will do neither of you any good.
Start by observing.
So many times, men tell me that their partners come at them with “What now? What’s wrong now?” or “OK, just tell me, what did I do this time?”
Can you see how those might not be the best conversation starters?
In a neutral voice, just observe the shift:
“Hey, we had such a nice weekend. I loved that we had so much time together but suddenly it feels like we’re not as close as we just were yesterday. You’re not really making eye contact. It feels like you’ve gone quiet and you haven’t had much to say. Are you OK?”
Admittedly, you may have done this so many times before that you are out of patience and just want to cut to the chase. I get it but a hard line approach just won’t work here.
Really listen to his answer.
Don’t convince yourself that you really know what’s really bothering him. Listen. Even if he just says that he’s tired, frustrated with work, or the ever frustrating “fine.”
Tell him what you want him to think:
“OK, if you tell me you’re fine, I’m going to believe you but I just need you to know, that this feels different for me. It feels like something’s up and I don’t get it but I’m going to let it be. If you end up wanting to talk, know that I’m here. I’d really like to help.”
Don’t assume that he knows what’s wrong.
I know this makes no sense to some of you but sometimes people get upset and have a reaction to something without actually knowing what’s wrong, themselves. Something just happens that gets or shifts their attention. Their own fight or flight response kicks in as a defense mechanism to ward off potential danger.
Like a deer hearing something strange in the woods, they’ll just stop and freeze, trying to determine if there is an actual threat.
Give him time to slow down and figure it out.
Just let it be for a while.
Suggest a movie, a board game, or something that gets both of your minds off what is going on.
If being around the mood shift is too anxiety provoking for you, go ahead and tell him.
As I explain to my male clients, most women start pouncing, pestering, and pinging because sitting in their disconnected mood is just too hard. They can’t tolerate it so they pester and nag.
Try saying: “Hey, I get it. We can all have an off day or be in a bad mood for no good reason but it feels strange just hanging out without you, pretending nothing is wrong when clearly we’re not talking as easily as we were yesterday. I’m just going to give you space. I hate being nagged when I am annoyed or frustrated. I don’t want to annoy you like that.”
Then, go and take care of yourself.
Don’t text that man!
Go off, take care of you. Call a friend. Get in a workout. Blow off steam with some music. Distract yourself with something you enjoy until you can calm down and go back to the situation without anxiety.
Check in with yourself.
Are you feeling calmer? What do you need? Just because he’s denying that there is a problem or is saying that he doesn’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean he’s holding all the cards but I know it feels that way.
Think about what your boundaries are here.
What are you willing to tolerate? What are you willing to put up with? It might not be ok with you that he just periodically disconnects, shuts down, and shuts you out. You get to say so. You get to have a boundary around that.
Check back in.
There’s no definite amount of time for this. Sometimes it’s an overnight. Sometimes, it’s half a day. Sometimes it’s two days. You have to trust your gut and perspective on the circumstance.
Since you have taken the time to calm down and gain perspective, yourself, you should be able to sense what feels appropriate:
“Hey, I hope it helped that I just let you be. I wanted to give you some time without pressuring you. Was that helpful…. Was something up, after all? Did you figure out what caused the shift?…..Do you feel ready to hang out again?”
Let this be a conversation.
Listen to his answers before jumping in with your next response. Avoid problem solving unless he asks you for your opinion. In fact, ask him if he wants your help in problem solving. He might not be there yet.
You might have expectations or needs for checking back in.
Nothing is more frustrating or feels more out of control than when someone checks out and then suddenly just goes back to normal without checking back in, acknowledging the disconnect, or explaining what was going on.
So many women in this place get afraid that if they say anything, he’ll just go away again so they let it pass, say nothing, and let things move along.
You exist in this relationship and you get to have a boundary.
“Hey, I know you think I’m making a big deal out of nothing here. I get that you’re telling me that nothing’s wrong. You might even think this is all my imagination but I feel a shift here and before we get to the hanging out part of this evening, I need:________
You might just need him to validate that he did, in fact, disconnect. You might not need him to know why. You might need him to know what it makes you think and feel like when you does that.
You might need him to do a better job communicating in the future that he needs some space or just wants to be alone.
You can’t control him, only your response to him.
At the end of the day, he doesn’t have to tell you anything but if he can’t meet your needs around this, you’ve hit a roadbloack and it’s your call as to where you go next and only you can decide that.
Men get quiet for all kinds of reasons.
Sometimes they really are tired. Sometimes, they really do just need to zone out and not talk. Sometimes, they do get frozen with work stress.
They may have no clue what’s bothering them or they may be wrestling with depression, fears of intimacy, or worries about the future.
Don’t act like you’re the problem until he tells you that you are. Don’t assume that you know him better than he knows himself. Do your best to be open, curious, and accepting. Assure him that you are on his side and available if he needs you.
However, if he doesn’t reach back, you have to decide what does or doesn’t work for you and what you’ll need to do going forward.