Why Does My Man Shut Down Emotionally When I Need Him The Most?
Does your man shutdown emotionally when you need him the most? Is 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?
Yes, yes and yes! Are you ready for answers to this very common, age-old question. Why does my man shut down emotionally when I need him the most?
The pursue withdraw dynamic
The majority of couples in conflict polarize. They 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.
Often pursuers are female and withdrawers are male, though the opposite is sometimes the case. 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 attacking emotion and exasperation to try to get the withdrawer to engage.
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.
Withdrawers 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 perfect storm
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 shutdown 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 withdrawing partner cares emotionally about their deep pain. If this does not happen, the pursuit will continue on and on.
Negative Cycle Arguments
Couples caught in this negative cycle of interaction repeatedly fall into the same pattern of conflict. This is confusing and painful. It produces fear.
And in time, the smallest disagreement can send them 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 we are afraid of losing love, we instinctively move into a posture of self-protection. This only validates our partner’s fear that we really do not care. And our self-protection – emotional withdrawal – escalates our partner’s fear.
Breaking the cycle
In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) we help couples see their own emotional cycle of conflict. We call this de-escalation. When they see what each of them are doing to trigger the cycle, they become empowered to stop the destructive dance.
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 does not 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. But with time and the help of a skilled therapist they can learn to make the connection between discomfort in their body and the actual emotions they are feeling.
It is the lack of emotional awareness that makes their emotionally hurt pursuing partner feel crazy with frustration. The pursuer interprets their withdrawing partner’s lack of emotional responsiveness as their not caring about their feelings.
But the truth is that they cannot show emotional compassion about their partner’s emotions when they cannot feel their own emotions. It is not enough for them to say they are sorry. They must express that they are 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 are feeling. And then to be able to express feelings for their partner who they have emotionally injured
The withdrawer often feels stupid and awkward having to learn how to feel their own and their partner’s emotions.
Acknowledging that they struggle and need help with emotional communication takes courage. If they feel disrespected because they struggle with emotional communication they may never learn to open up. They don’t understand why they shut down emotionally.
Feeling understood and safe in the therapy environment is critical to the couple’s progress toward escaping the negative cycle. The therapist expresses care and understanding for each partner’s frustration with the process. And they help partners to understand the other person’s love and attachment longings.
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 they are 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 dance. This dance is all about reassuring each other and pulling each other close when fear is aroused.
There is a path for connection with your partner. It begins here.
If you’ve made it through this article then you’re on your way to understanding why your man shuts down emotionally. And is often the case, knowing the “why” will go a very long way in getting you to the “what”.
I hope you also get that you are not alone. There’s a sisterhood of pursuing women out there who are tired of their man withdrawing and shutting down emotionally.
And finally, there are some amazing therapists who can help you understand why your man withdrawals and shuts down emotionally when you need him the most. With their help you truly can learn a new way of connecting.
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. Just the way you need him to be.
I’m Dr. Michael Regier, a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, CA. I can help you stop your negative cycles of arguing and create emotional connections for lifetime love. My wife Paula and I co-authored the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.