The Great Shutdown
How Our Relationship is Like Politics in America
By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
Dateline: January 2019. The parks are closed. Government workers are furloughed. Security lines are getting longer at airports. Food isn’t being inspected, federal loans for farmers and small businesses are suspended, and the U.S. credit rating is in jeopardy. The historic Great Shutdown continues with no end in sight, and hundreds of thousands of people are feeling the pain.
The Relational Shutdown
I’ve often thought that what happens globally or nationally also happens locally, personally, and in our closest relationships. Almost every distressed couple I’ve worked with has experienced their own version of the Great Shutdown. The patterns are familiar to everyone:
- “He doesn’t talk to me. He won’t respond. I ask him what’s wrong and he says ‘Nothing’.”
- “We fight over stupid things and she gets her feelings hurt. Then her wall goes up. It takes her days to get over it.”
- “She attacks me. She’s critical, controlling, and it’s always my fault. So of course I shut down to protect myself.”
- “Whatever I do it’s never enough for him. He wants sex all the time. Every time he touches me it has to lead to sex. So I just push him away and go to bed early to avoid him.”
- “I can’t say anything to her. The least little suggestion makes her mad. Then she won’t talk to me.”
- “We’ve been like this for years. We used to fight all the time. Now there’s no connection at all – we’re like roommates.”
Why We Shut Down
Our government shuts down when the two sides are at war. Each side needs to be right, and there is no compromise. When one side is “right” they make the other side wrong. It’s a classic power struggle – and it creates a no-win scenario. Negotiations lead nowhere, and the system crashes.
Relationships are very similar. Conflict is a normal part of marriage and committed relationships. We get triggered in a thousand different ways. We don’t feel appreciated or supported. Or we feel controlled, attacked, or ignored. In my own marriage we fight about walking the dogs, recycling, and the remote control (along with some slightly more significant issues). We shut down because we’re angry, and we shut down to protect ourselves (from real or perceived attacks).
When there is conflict, or emotional reactivity due to unmet needs, most couples employ what Terry Real calls “losing strategies.” These include:
- Needing to be right
- Controlling your partner
- Unbridled self-expression (verbal bombardment in the guise of self-expression or “communication” – a type of spontaneous venting or spewing)
- Retaliation and revenge
In case you didn’t notice, number five is the Great Shutdown. This emotional and physical distance is often the last resort, after other losing strategies break down. Withdrawal also includes defensiveness and stubborn resistance. A good example is the Donald Trump vs Nancy Pelosi drama, now playing on your favorite cable news network. Does this sound familiar to you in your relationship?
What Are We To Do?
Ultimately, I believe that fixing the Great Shutdown of our government shouldn’t be all that different from fixing relational shutdowns in our marriages and committed relationships. These are the basic steps and principles:
- We are all in this together – otherwise known as: We are partners and teammates. We are on the same team. It’s about reaffirming our commitment to each other, based in love, understanding and empathy. “Would you rather be right, or be in relationship?”
- Use an abundance mentality (rather than living in lack). There is enough for all of us – or both of us – when we are willing to compromise and share. Practice the art of giving and let go of expectations (giving unites us – expectations separate us and sets us up for resentment).
- What do you really need in the relationship? Make a list of needs and practice giving your partner what you need. Then make reasonable requests and be open to feedback from your partner.
- Find out what your partner needs – you might need to ask directly! Listen, acknowledge, and use empathy and compassion. Your partner’s needs probably aren’t that different from your own.
- Practice forgiveness and gratitude. Forgiveness is simply letting go of your resentments (never tell your partner that you forgive them – that’s just a sideways form of retaliation, such as “I forgive you for being such a jerk.”) Holding on to resentments hurts you just as much as your partner. What do you appreciate about your partner? Write a gratitude list and add to it every day.
- Let go of victim mentality. You create the role of victim for yourself by believing in your tragic story. The fix to being in victim is responsibility – take responsibility for your own feelings and create a positive outcome by your choice to be in partnership.
- Use mindfulness – non-judgmental awareness – and practice non-reactivity on a daily basis. Slow the process down, take a cleansing breath, and use loving-kindness to create intimacy and connection.
If, or when our government practices these same principles and skills that are so effective in couples therapy, we may travel well beyond the Great Shutdown – to creative problem-solving and improvements for everyone.
Couples therapy is highly recommended when there is a repetitive pattern of shutting down in a relationship. Divorce and relationship break-ups are highly associated with ongoing patterns of distance and withdrawal. Our Connections program of marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives is very effective for couples who experience too much conflict and distance. Please contact us today for more information about our programs for relationship repair.