What to Do If Your Partner Shuts Down During Conflict

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What to Do If Your Partner Shuts Down During Conflict

“My partner tells me what I want to hear, so we’ll move onto a more pleasant conversation. And, if I try to bring up anything…unpleasant or stressful, he immediately ‘shuts down’ on me. He retreats, withdraws, becomes defensive, or simply walks away from the conversation and ME. I feel like it’s impossible to get him to talk about his feelings – or share his thoughts with me.

The only way I can get him to talk about the issues is if I hound him. I literally have to scream like a banshee to get him to communicate with me. His behavior is so annoying and so frustrating and it makes me so angry. I just don’t know what else to do to get him to address and talk to me. HELP!”

~ Anonymous

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone in having a partner who shuts down during conflict.

It’s common for at least one partner (sometimes both) to “shut down” or “stonewall,” during unpleasant or upsetting conversations. Unfortunately, this behavior typically leads to anger, resentment, depression, frustration, and confusion. Nothing gets resolved when one or both partners retreat or withdraw when the “going gets tough.”

Who Shuts Down More?

You may think that male partners shut down during conflict more than women partners.

That is simply not true.

In fact, studies suggest that it is often women who “shut down” during disagreements, arguments, conflict, and tense situations.

On the flip side, researchers found that it’s often men who follow or chase their partners to resolve issues. In other words, men tend to be “pursuers” while women tend to be “withdrawers.” Ironically, this same dynamic also plays out in same-sex relationships.

Still, trying to communicate with a partner who “shuts down” during difficult conversations can be…hard. “Shutting down” can make you feel emotionally disconnected from your partner. It can also make you feel like the more effort you put into trying to connect, the more effort he or she puts into avoiding it.

Types of shutting down

Your partner may “shut down” on you during a disagreement by:

  • Playing on a smartphone or tablet
  • Rolling his or her eyes
  • Staring at the ground
  • Becoming defensive and not listening to what you have to say
  • Dismissing your feelings
  • Simply walking away and refusing to discuss the matter any further

You want your partner to willingly work with you to resolve any issues in your relationship. But, every time you broach the topic, he or she either goes into “attack mode” or retreats from you. 

How to move forward when a partner shuts down during conflict

So, what do you do when your partner shuts down during conflict?

If you’re like most people, you put even more effort into communicating with them. You begin hounding your partner because you’re desperate to “fix” things. You want to connect. So, your tone becomes more frantic, rising a couple of octaves.

You also become passionate…

Loud…

Brash…

Reckless.

You are confident you can make your partner communicate with you if only you remain steadfast in your determination. Does it work? Sometimes but not especially.

If “shutting down” becomes a pattern with your partner, that is problematic. You can’t be in a healthy relationship if one or both of you continues to “shut down” when things get dicey.

Plus, dealing with a partner who constantly withdraws from you can get old quickly, not to mention how utterly tiring it is to have to struggle to get your partner to communicate with you.

Whoa!

How to Handle Stonewalling

If this behavior becomes increasingly frequent, you may become so emotionally fatigued that you stop trying to connect.

The end result?

  • Breakup
  • Separation
  • Divorce

That’s probably the last thing you want.

So, it’s important to get to the root of the “shutting down” before your relationship reaches the point of no return. You can still turn the situation around. You and your partner can still change your behaviors. But, you both have to want to change.




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Actionable Steps


Here are some tips for handling a partner who shuts down during conflict

1

Be vulnerable

If your partner has a habit of “shutting down” on you, the only way you’ll get him or her to stop is to be vulnerable. Allow your partner to see and feel your pain. This will help him or her feel more emotionally connected to you.
 
Dig beneath the surface and identify what is really prompting your frustration, anger, and pain. Most likely these negative emotions stem from missing your partner.

You feel lonely and neglected. Share that with him or her. Explain to your partner that when he or she “shuts down” on you, it upsets you and causes you to feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, abandoned, frightened, anxious, angry, hurt, sad, etc. 
 
Let your partner know that what you need most from him or her is to stay engaged with you, even during rough and turbulent times. Hopefully, with a softer, more compassionate approach, your partner will feel safe enough to communicate with you – even when it’s challenging.

2

Stay positive…even if it’s hard

If you are constantly nagging or criticizing your partner, there is a good chance he or she will “shut down” on you out of mere frustration. Try to stay positive – even if it’s hard. I know that is easier said than done, but do yourself and your partner a favor and at least try to.
 
Instead of focusing on everything and anything your partner does wrong, try to concentrate on all of the things he or she does right (even if it is minuscule). Look at the situation as “half-full” not “half-empty.” And, when warranted, praise your partner for a job well done.
 
Why?

Because this will help build a connection between you which is vital if you want your partner to stop “shutting down.” Your partner needs to feel safe or that you won’t bash him or her because of how he or she thinks or feels. If your partner feels secure in your relationship and “safe enough” to express himself or herself, he or she will engage more with you.
 
Stay positive and acknowledge what your partner is doing right or well. A little acknowledgment can go a long way when trying to get your partner to open up.

3

Focus on finding solutions

Focus on finding solutions – not rehashing problems over and over again with no end in sight. Constantly nagging and complaining would make anyone, including you, “shut down.” No one wants to hear all that. Instead of harping over problems, why not develop a plan of action?
 
Start by trying to “fix” what is broken. I recommend that you wait until your anger subsides or lessens, and then ask to speak with your partner once his or her anger has also subsided – or lessened.
 
Then, only address issues when things are stable, or as close to stable, as possible. Start first by sharing how much you love and respect your partner, then share one problem at a time (not multiple ones) with him or her.
 
Note: There will be time to address other issues. But, only address one problem at a time.
 
Keep your cool and stay respectful. Listen to your partner’s perspective and any possible solutions he or she offers. If you criticize your partner or make him or her feel unheard or disrespected, he or she will “shut down” on you. Be honest, open, and listen. Then, develop a plan on how you can address the issue and repair the damage.

4

Take a break

If you try repeatedly to communicate and connect with your partner, but nothing works, you have two options – seek relationship counseling and/or take a break from trying to address issues with your partner.
 
This break may mean moving out for a while to regroup or it may mean continuing to live together but refraining from addressing difficult topics. A cooling-off period, even if it’s only temporary, may be just what you both need to gather your courage and tackle those challenging issues. Once calmer heads have prevailed, you’ll be able to talk to one another like rational adults. 
 
Note: Regardless of your next steps, seeking counseling is probably a good way to go because it will help you improve how you communicate with each other when you’re together.

5

Read more on this topic

You can learn more about what to do if your partner shuts down on you by reading the following articles: What to do When Your Partner Shuts Down, How to Cope When Your Spouse Shuts Down, Career coach and Does Your Partner Shut Down During Arguments.

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About the Author


Dr. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Ph.D. in Family Psychology

Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn


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