My heart took a tumble last week when a family member I dearly love told me her long-term relationship had ended. One of the reasons she gave for its demise was that they didn’t talk.
She told me how hard it is for her to reveal her feelings. Her Mum doesn’t really do it, nor her grandmother. The males in the family are worse. Like many of us, she had no model to show her how to sort out conflict or hurt.
Instead of learning to open up, she was taught to shut down.
I understand this—after all, I’m from that same family tribe. I used to be the queen of withdrawing from relationships because I didn’t know how else to communicate. I didn’t know how to express myself before getting to an explosive place.
I’ve worked hard over the years to be able to talk about my feelings. To learn to take responsibility for them and own my emotional landscape. And even now, I can still easily shut down.
What does it look like when I shut down?
I withdraw my energy and communication. I become unavailable; my heart is shut.
Keeping an open heart has been one of the biggest ongoing challenges in my relationships. In those moments when I feel wronged or frustrated or angry—and most of all hurt—it’s a mighty mission to take a breath and choose to stay open and present.
It’s difficult to talk, but what if we don’t?
Communication happens through what we don’t say.
Much is being said when we give someone the silent treatment. Much is being conveyed if we pull ourselves back and don’t engage.
I’ve been with my partner for 12 years, and over that time we’ve had some major silences. One lasted for a week. Yes, one whole torturous, silent, awkward, uncomfortable week. At the time I thought, stuff you, I’m not going to try and sort this out. (It’s nearly always me that does that.) On days one and two we froze each other out; on days three and four we avoided each other. On days five and six we shifted into a calmer place. On day seven we talked (initiated by me).
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this as a path to reconciliation.
When my partner withdraws from me, I feel like he has the power. This is true in my friendships, too. When people shut me out, I’m left not knowing what’s happening. My choice then is this:
Put in the work and find out.
Or withdraw myself.
If I withdraw too, the disconnection deepens more.
Shutting down can be a way we punish. A way to hurt back. Or a way we show what we can’t say.
All long-term relationships and friendships run into trouble. Fact. What defines if they renew and survive, or die, is if we can reach out and be willing to listen, own our part and speak from our hearts more than our defenses.
If I love someone and the relationship is important to me, I’m going to risk it. I’m going to risk being vulnerable and show my soft underbelly. I’m going to risk someone getting shitty—but not too shitty—with me because they can’t be vulnerable.
I wish we were more equipped with emotional language. I wish it was taught to us in schools so we were better able to sort out the distances when they happen, rather than have them pull us apart. Never have I felt more alone than when I’ve shut out my partner or a good friend. Shutting down locks people out, when we really long for intimacy and connection.
So when we get to that place where the distance between us feels bigger and colder than the arctic—or when we know we need to speak up, or when we feel something isn’t right, or we’ve shut down, or someone we love is freezing us out—what are we going to do?
Open up or close down?
I’m sure a lot of relationships fold because we don’t really know how to open up. I’m pretty certain this was the case for my family member and her partner. Finding ways to talk more openly is a priceless life skill—a love skill. And it takes risk and commitment and guts, and if we are willing we can learn over time how to do it.
My own little checklist and a few ways forward after shutting down:
Speak with care for others’ feelings, but be honest.
Always try to speak with respect.
Start with “I feel,” not, “you make me feel.”
No one likes to feel criticized. Make “I” sentences and not “you” sentences. (“I’m struggling with how much you work,” versus, “you don’t make any time for us.”)
Listen well. Be present.
It’s not about right and wrong, feelings are not right or wrong.
Acknowledge how the other person feels even if it seems weird or hard to understand.
Be as vulnerable as possible. (Yup, it’s scary, but powerful.) To stand in our own tender truth often diffuses other people’s defenses and gives them the space and permission to do it too.
Be positive. Weave in the good stuff, too. Don’t just blast out the negatives.
Avoid talking when feeling highly emotional or angry. It’s probably not going to go that well.
Avoid blaming statements like “you always” or “you never.”
Definitely don’t blame. Instead try to see and understand a dynamic that has perhaps evolved, or a pattern. Or a trigger. Bring awareness—not blame.
If we’re not going to trigger each other’s defenses, then gentleness is the way.
It’s always good to ask that killer question: Do I want to be right ,or do I want to work this out?
Author: Dettra Rose
Image: Allef V./Unsplash
Editors: Toby Israel; Renée Picard