How do I not shut down when upset?

My whole life I have isolated when I get upset or angry. I did this in my first marriage which lasted 27 years and I’m doing it again in my second. I would like to find a better way to communicate my feelings without my partner, feeling under attack.
Asked by Arnold

Thank you for reaching out. And I am sorry that you’re experiencing difficulties.

It’s a great first step to acknowledge that you’re struggling with these issues. Having insight is a critical and foundational aspect of healing and moving forward. If we don’t know what the problem is, then there is little potential anything will ever change. So, you’ve already made a positive step by formulating some insight as to what is getting in your way. The next battle to tackle – what to do about it?

It sounds like you’re struggling with a phenomenon known as stonewalling. This involves deciding to halt communicating with another person. You withdraw from interacting and create a barrier, create distance. By deliberately shutting down during disagreements, the end result is hurt, harm to the relationship, and immense amounts of frustration.

Stonewalling may include discomfort surrounding talking about feelings and emotions, dismissing the concerns of the other person, not responding to questions, and simply just walking away and refusing to engage any further. It hardly ever is an effective method. And, in fact, can be a destructive force in a relationship.

Notably, it should not be confused with taking a step away to gather your thoughts and calm down. It’s an entirely different thing if, in the heat of the moment, you calmly and respectfully express to your partner that you’re feeling overwhelmed, need twenty minutes to gather your thoughts, and then you’ll continue the discussion. This is a better way to handle situations when you’re overcome with emotion.

Stonewalling involves ignoring your partner. Storming off angrily without saying a word. Refusing to answer. Making accusations as opposed to having a reasonable discussion. Engaging in dismissive body language such as rolling your eyes. It usually never ends well. And it causes more problems in the relationship.

Often, all of this isn’t planned out as a means for being hurtful. Stonewalling is, more often, an unhealthy behavioral pattern with roots in anxiety, frustration, and fear. It could be a habit learned in childhood. Perhaps your parents interacted this way and that’s what was modeled for you. So, while it might, on the surface, seem to be an intentionally aggressive way of interacting, it more than likely is a learned behavior that’s actually a defensive mechanism.

Overcoming this pattern requires patience, practice, and communication. It’s possible to learn more effective ways of interacting, to reprogram ingrained habits.

Some strategies that you might consider working on to change this pattern include:

  • Deciding with your partner that you’re both okay with delaying certain conversations if one or both of you feel overwhelmed. Work on this ahead of time – select a time when you’re both relaxed and come up with a game plan. Figure out what taking a break will look like. Perhaps decide on a neutral signal to let the other know you are flooded emotionally and need a break. This could be as simple as raising a hand into a “stop” position. It can be a word, it can be a silly dance you break into. A funny signal could help calm things down more! It can be anything. But decide that giving the signal means the discussion pauses and you both will step away for a break. Agree you’ll both honor the signal. Make your break at least twenty minutes to give your body time to relax.
  • Paying attention to your body language as you’re speaking and listening. If you catch yourself engaging in something that is sending the wrong message (you know that dismissive facial expression you give!) then stop and readjust. Consider calling yourself out and apologizing. Say “sorry, I didn’t mean to roll my eyes. I’m feeling overwhelmed but that was wrong of me.”
  • Taking time to calm yourself a bit ahead of a talking about a contentious issue. Think about what you want to say. Take some breaths. Take a walk before talking. Listen to calming music ahead of time. Prepare yourself.
  • Being open to clarifying what the other person is saying to ensure fewer misperceptions or mistakes. Sometimes it helps to repeat back what the person said. It’s not uncommon for us to hear one thing when, in reality, that wasn’t what the other person meant.
  • Being open to accept feedback.
  • Fully take in what the other person says before launching into your own reply. We often are already formulating what we’re going to say before they finish speaking. But stop this if you catch yourself. Pause and refocus on listening.
  • Being sure that your language is more neutral and less accusing.

All of these strategies are certainly sometimes easier said than done. Don’t expect to get it all right immediately. And, too, remember that you don’t have to do any of this alone. A therapist can be a great help when it comes to changing how you communicate. A therapist can help you understand some of the causes behind this pattern you’ve developed. Oftentimes, anger is a mask for some other deeper issue. Additionally, a therapist can help you practice new, more effective ways of responding to your partner.