Can You Talk to Me? How to Deal When Your Partner Shuts Down

A woman wondering, can you talk to me? while hugging her boyfriend who refuses to talk.

Disagreements are a normal part of any healthy relationship. What’s not normal is when your partner shuts down and refuses to work through the problems. Refusing to talk to someone, also known as stonewalling, isn’t ever a solution, but people aren’t perfect and when they’re upset they might do any number of odd things. If you’re wondering why your significant other won’t talk to you, here are some things you can do that work a lot better than begging them to be reasonable.

Take a break and set a time limit to come back.
When your partner stonewalls you, it might feel like leaving the conversation is a loss and your concerns will get swept under the rug, but a 2005 psychological study by Gilbert Chin shows that a cooling-off period can actually help conflict resolution. The cooling-off period allows the instinctual emotional response to subside and the decision making part of the brain to take over.

When you’re having a fight and your partner starts to stonewall, set a time limit. Twenty minutes is usually a pretty good amount of time for both parties to cool off. After the period is over, come back and readdress the situation. Hopefully, after you’ve both had an opportunity to calm your nerves the space will open for conversation and resolution.

Try your best to relax your body prior to the conversation.
Body language is an important part of nonverbal communication and can contribute a lot to the perceived tone of a conversation. If you find yourself getting overly emotional in a disagreement with your partner, try relaxing your shoulders and stomach muscles and take deep breaths. While your partner shouldn’t be shutting down to begin with, it’s best to not add additional visual cues that might make them think they have reasons to.

Use the “this happened/I felt” structure.
It’s easy to get angry when you feel wronged by your partner, but doing so is the quickest way to trigger a shutdown. While anger may be your instinctual reaction, if your partner is prone to stonewalling then you’re not going to find much luck with this approach. Instead of heaping blame on them or pointing what they did wrong, try using the “this happened/I felt” approach.

An example would be your partner deciding to hang out with their friends when you already had a date planned. Tell them how what happened made you feel. This structure prevents you from verbalizing snap judgements and put-downs by keeping things focused on what actually happened, while you take responsibility for your own feelings. The technique isn’t perfect, but puts parameters on the conversation that will keep the exchange civil and nonaccusatory when emotions run high.

Suggest therapy.
If the situation doesn’t improve after weeks or months of working on your communication techniques, it’s time to suggest therapy, either as a couple or each person on their own. The discussion about getting into therapy often happens across many conversations and often isn’t an easy one.

It’s a common misconception that therapy is only for people suffering severe mental illness. This isn’t the case. Anybody can benefit from professional talk therapy, but this makes the conversation difficult, even if it’s the path most likely to help solve the communication breakdowns in your relationship. Therapists are the only people professionally licensed to help you and your partner get past these types of issues, and that’s why it’s valuable to see a therapist.

Move on.
This is the last resort to consider for a stonewalling relationship. There comes a time when you have to figure out if dealing with a partner who can’t discuss basic relationship issues is worth it.

Conflict resolution is one of the most important skills for a successful relationship. Someone who refuses to talk through an issue will fail to uphold their end of the bargain. When problems aren’t resolved, they don’t just disappear; they pile up. And even if you do love your partner, they may not be right for you.

Fighting isn’t fun, but it’s important for you to be able to resolve conflicts with respect. It’s part of the agreement of being in a relationship. It’s also a difficult to learn how to fight in a healthy productive way, but if you try these tips you might just have shot.

Alex Bocknek

Alex Bocknek is the senior editor of The Date Mix and works at Zoosk, the online dating service. He’s also a recovering music critic and an aspiring fiction writer (probably lost) on the way to an independent bookstore near you. He can be found occasionally musing about politics, philosophy, and love in the modern world.

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