I have had a few emails from spouses lately asking me to address a communication issue in their relationship in regard to feeling shut out by a spouse or having a spouse that is shut down. Those aren’t their words; those are words that they are using to describe specific behavior. Many times, when we feel shut out or not included by our spouse, there is a tendency to reciprocate the behavior, or, if it is making us uncomfortable, try to fix it or get irritated which can further exacerbate the cycle. Shut out and shut down are one of the most common police officer relationship problems I hear about.
What do I mean by Shut Out and Shut Down?
Shut Out is my word for when you try to communicate with someone, maybe by asking a question, and they dismiss or reject your attempt to connect. These rejections can come in a variety of forms which we will get to below.
Shut down is that feeling you get when you don’t know what to say in response or you know what you want to say and it’s not nice, so you say nothing. OR Shut can be on the part of your partner saying nothing when you are really wanting or needing them to respond. Shut downs can be caused for various reasons which we will also get to below.
I have been on the receiving end and the giving end of both.
I shut my husband out for a while. Over years of being told to “get to the point” when I would story tell about my days when he wasn’t around, I decided that he simply didn’t need to hear what I was doing or how I was feeling. I stopped sharing. What I didn’t recognize was that “get to the point” was due to him not being emotionally available and shut down due to the hypervigilance cycle. He was none the wiser that I was shutting him out and just thought I was quiet. We were both clueless that this pattern could be a consequence of the job as no one was talking about the emotional impact from the job. This decision not to share did nothing for my own loneliness or his desire to connect. It took me hitting an emotional wall to realize something wasn’t working.
Let’s talk about Shut Out first!
A shut out can occur for various reasons and one of the most popular reason for shutting someone out that I hear from non-LE couples is that the person has been hurt by their spouse or does not emotionally trust their spouse, so they shut them out. Law Enforcement couples need to be aware of other reasons for the shut out, Invisible Emotional Armor. Officers armor up with their emotional armor daily on the job. Many times, after years of putting it on, it simply doesn’t come off. Be sure to check out my blog post on Invisible Emotional Armor. The summarized version is that this emotional armor protects them from the severe impact of what they witness day in and day out. It is helpful and as a spouse or an officer, you want it available. It can also impact the relationship when left on and not removed. Shut out can also occur due to the culture of being “strong” and not “showing weakness”. I am shutting you out because I do not want you to see the pain I am in or need you to continue to see me in a certain way. This can happen on either side of relationship. As a law enforcement spouse you may shut out your partner because you don’t want to appear as “weak” or unsupportive of the career.
So what does Shut Out look like?
Shut Out can come in the form of phrases like:
You wouldn’t understand
You won’t get it
You have no idea what I go through
I talked to (insert name here) about it because they get me
I don’t want to burden you with it
You know you are being shut out because in your gut, it just hurts and stings a little. It feels like your friend picked someone else for the team instead of you. It can also feel like you aren’t worth their time or energy. Maybe looks like they do not care about you. I don’t know the cool language to describe it but it’s like you got dissed. Along with feeling a little hurt, your response inside or even outside might be a big “F you buddy” or a giant middle finger when they turn their back (or to their face)
In short, your spouse just shut you out of a part of their life.
I’ve talked about Love Maps before – Drs. John and Julie Gottman state that Love Maps are foundational for your relationship – Think of it like the WAZE app – I think that WAZE is the best GPS system because it is crowd sourced. Everyone is always contributing to it. If I see brake lights, hopefully, someone has put in some information to let me know what’s up and why we are slowing down. If not, I figure it’s my responsibility to do.
This is like your relationship. You see your partner being irritated, quiet, annoyed, or maybe really thrilled and jovial. You inquire and you get no data back. That is frustrating. Or you throw out a topic to your spouse and they shut you out by not engaging in the conversation with you.
If you are the one guilty of this, you may need to examine your invisible armor. What has caused you to shut out your partner? Have they not been there for you in the past? Is this a hangover from previous relationships?
Shutting someone out with phrases like those I mentioned, “You won’t understand” or “I don’t want to burden you”, implies that your partner cannot connect. These are phrases of someone who wants to be a victim of circumstances. People say those phrases because they want to distance themselves from others instead of connecting. If YOU can connect to what I am experiencing by validating something or giving me empathy – it invalidates that my experience is unique.
These phrases are common for people struggling with depression or anxiety because they are stuffing their experiences instead of sharing them. Guess what? If you stuff that shit, your body is going to revolt on you in the form of depression, anxiety or anger. This is why it is so important for officers to let things out. You can also learn more about this by listening to Episode 27 of my podcast: A Spoonful of Poison.
So, if you are the one saying those phrases, STOP IT and start opening up. If you can’t, talk about why you think you can’t and what you need to do so. While we can walk in each other’s shoes and know exactly what it is like, we can all connect in emotion. We have all felt joy, sorrow, grief, shock, disgust, indifference, and surprise and because of that, we can always choose to connect with each other.
Shut Down can feel like shut out but it’s a little different. Sometimes if we are being shut out, we can shut down. We just don’t talk usually because we can’t think of anything nice to say or don’t know what to say.
Shut down for me looks like trying to talk to a teenager when they don’t want to talk. You get things like:
Stop asking so many questions
I’m tired – can we talk about this later
JUST NOTHING but quiet and staring at the TV when you ask the question and then you say – did you hear me? And you get a HUH?
This is super common with law enforcement officers due to the hypervigilance cycle. The downside of the cycle causes officers to lack the brain capacity to have the conversation. Spouses can often misinterpret this and think that their officer just doesn’t care or isn’t listening. It helps to clarify this. You can learn more about the impact of the hyperviglance cycle in episode 11 and 12.
Another side of Shut down is our own shut down. Sometimes this could also be due to fight or flight response which kicks in when we are in a stressful situation. Our brain just won’t let us talk about something or might even be trying to protect us from something, so it just shuts down. This is sometimes associated with the flight or freeze component of the brains response system. Sometimes it’s just because we don’t know what to say, so we get quiet. People on the other side of this might feel SHUT OUT.
For law enforcement shutting down could come from sharing about or hearing about a horrible call. Another common shut down with couples simply comes with giving up. An example of giving up can be asking for someone to just listen to the story and instead having them try to fix things over and over rather than just giving empathy. Giving up can also be the fear of a negative response. A partner may want to reach out but due to a repeated negative response, it feels to risky and vulnerable to reach out anymore. The emotional trust in this situation is lacking and causes the is shut down.
An example of this could be your spouse beating themselves up, saying that they are “so stupid” or “an idiot” or “I am such a shitty (insert role here)”. We might initially say “Oh no you aren’t” and then maybe move to “I wish you wouldn’t say that about yourself” to finally just saying nothing because our attempts to fix it has failed over and over.
So, now that you understand Shut Out and Shut Down, is there a part of the pattern that you are guilty of? Does your spouse do this to you?
If you are a shutter outter or shutter downer, I hope you can hear that you are hurting the relationship and your spouse. You are PROBABLY not doing it intentionally. Just understand that it does have an impact.
How to repair from Shut Out and Shut Down
If you are a Shutter Outter or a Shutter Downer, own up to it!
For shut out, before you say the phrase that shuts your spouse out, I want you to say, “I appreciate you asking about (insert whatever here). It’s hard for me to share but it’s helpful to know that you are there for me” AND THEN – I WANT YOU TO SHARE!!!!
I know. I know. You are thinking WTH!?!?! But hear me out, even if you give the cliff note abbreviated version, you have taken a step to not shut out your spouse and thus increase the Love Maps, or Relationship WAZE system!!!
For shut down, I want you take a couple a breaths which will start to shut down your fight and flight response. Then say something that acknowledges that you are shut down like, “I don’t have the energy to talk can we talk (insert time frame or day).
If you shut down from not knowing what to say, take those same breaths and just simply say how you are feeling. For example, if you hear about a horrible call and start to shut down, take those breaths and say, “that makes me feel so sad.” Or “That hurts my heart” (can you tell I’m from the South) Or “That makes me feel like punching someone out”. It’s ok to ask for a break when listening to something difficult as long as you come back to it. It is also ok to cry or show emotion rather then shutting down.
If you are the recipient of a Shutter Outter or a Shutter Downer, the easiest way to respond is by owning what you are feeling.
I don’t always recommend you follow a formula but sometimes they are helpful.
So, the formula I recommend is:
I’m (state feeling) because (situation). I would really appreciate (state need).
You have to stay away from the word “You” if possible, especially if it’s accusatory or trying to change their behavior.
DON’T SAY, “It sucks that you are shutting me out and you need to talk to me!”
That is just SNARKY
Try something like, “I’m feeling shut out and it kind of sucks. I would love to be clued in on what’s going on”
You could also say, “I am feeling disconnected from you and when you are ready, I’d love to know what’s going on in your world”.
I will tell you that I got the shut out/shut down combo over the holiday season. In this situation I TOTALLY knew something was up because hubby was quiet and acting irritable on a regular basis. I would say “Hey what’s up” and get “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I don’t want to bother you with it”. Ookkkkaaaayyy..
One day I decided to say, “Hey I know you don’t want to talk about it or burden me with it but you need to know that it’s impacting me too. Whether we talk about it or not, it’s here in the room with us. I love you and when you are ready, I’m hear to listen” I said that a couple times and it wasn’t until we were out to dinner in JANUARY that he decided to talk. Hey, whatever.
The point being – I didn’t shut down, I didn’t shut up and I didn’t get snarky!
Here’s another example: Your spouse is saying, “Man, I am such a frickin idiot for going to the store and not making a list before I went! You must think I’m worthless!”
Instead of saying, nothing (shutting down) or
“Quit talking like that about yourself” (snarky) or
“Oh no honey, you’re not worthless… It’s ok”. (trying to fix it)
“Honey, it makes me sad to hear those things”
“Honey, I love you”
By simply saying how you feel in a SUCCINCT and POLITE way, you honor yourself and the situation.
You have to be prepared that it may not influence your spouse to open up or change behavior. But you get to show up in the relationship as the best version of yourself.
Look for the pattern in your relationship. It may be because of the invisible armor or hypervigilance. It may also be just a bad pattern of not connecting and opening up. If you each do your part, you will have a healthier and stronger relationship.
Some of my best advice for communication and your relationship can be found in my Intimacy Ops Plan which I am offering for free!
Until next time, Keep it Code 4.