Probably no aspect of couples work is more critical, or more difficult, for therapists than engaging a distant, emotionally shutdown partner. It’s far harder to connect with an emotionally closed-off person than with a more expressive client—even one who’s angry, loud, and actively fighting therapy every step of the way. At least the latter gives us some emotional Velcro to which we can attach, rather than the slippery-smooth surface of impassive, impenetrable stoicism. Attunement requires us to experience in ourselves and reflect back our clients’ feelings, but if we can’t pick up any feelings except an obvious desire not to have or express feelings, we’re left high and dry.
Since it’s so hard to stay with shut-down clients, many clinicians will give up and try going around their feelings—or avoidance of feelings—focusing instead on cognitions and behaviors. This not only prevents us from really taking such clients in emotionally, but reinforces their original problem—their tendency to avoid feelings and remain shuttered inside their own heads. Since the feelings being avoided are often regarded as terrifying, humiliating, and deeply threatening, doing this work is a delicate therapeutic balancing act. It requires moving forward with both gentleness and persistence, without being deflected by clients’ profound unwillingness to become engaged.
Beyond Radio Chatter
Josh, a 32-year-old Army officer, and his wife, 30-year-old Jennifer, who’d just retired from the Army, came to see me after two failed attempts at couples therapy. In the initial call, Jennifer’s voice was shaky, and she wasn’t sure Josh would come. “I love him very much, but I’m worried about our marriage,” she shared as we ended the call. At the first session, Josh, who’d been home from Afghanistan for eight months, moved toward me in the reception area, slow step by slow step, as if walking into my office was as perilous as leaving the safety of Iraq’s Green Zone, where he’d spent his first deployment during the volatile early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Josh prided himself on being a soldier, willingly worked long hours, believed in the mission, and had devoted his life to his military career. He’d married Jennifer between his second and third deployments, and found her military service and independence appealing. While he said he’d liked the idea of having a female companion—after all, many of his buddies were getting married—he wasn’t interested in an emotional connection. It seems he expected his wife to be a kind of stay-at-home buddy—fun to have around, but self-sufficient. He didn’t want to rely on her for anything, nor did he want her to rely on him. His real companions were his Army comrades—he “ate, drank, slept, and fought side by side with them for years”—and they were all he thought he needed.
Far from being self-sufficient, however, Jennifer had grown increasingly “clingy” since Josh had returned home from his third deployment. She hovered at the front door waiting for him when he came home from work, he said, and followed him around like an anxious puppy. He needed space and solitude, but she wouldn’t leave him alone, constantly demanding reassurance that he loved her. “She’s choking the life out of me,” he said. “I need some room to breathe.” The more she clung to him, the more he stayed away, spending hours at the gym, washing the car, or hanging out with his buddies.
Jennifer’s experience of their relationship was quite different. During Josh’s last deployment, she’d been terrified that he might die—might even already be dead and she wouldn’t know it. Troops in his unit had been killed, but there’d been long delays in notifying family members. They’d dated during his first two deployments, and now she was desperate to get him home safe, counting each day until his return so that they could finally begin their married life together. She was determined to be the best wife possible, promising herself she’d never let him down.
What he called her “clinging” was, in her mind, a way of fulfilling her promise never to let him down—to be there for him always. Thinking she was being the best wife possible, she had no idea how he experienced her. When she heard his words during our session, she was devastated and began weeping, then flipped into anger. “Why didn’t you say anything?” she yelled, tears streaming down her face. “I was only trying to be there for you.” Now hurt and mad, she sat stiffly upright, her arms crossed tightly across her chest.
During the first few sessions, Josh spoke about “radio chatter,” which he described as communication that was “brief, concise, to the point. No emotion.” Describing his interactions with Jennifer, he said “I shut her out, put the wall up, and tell her only what she needs to know.” I quickly realized he was using radio chatter with me, too. When I asked him how he felt his connection with his wife was, he said flatly, “Fine.” When I asked him about his experiences while deployed, he answered, “Nothing noteworthy.” I turned myself into a pretzel trying to connect with him. Maybe he’d respond if I shared a bit of what I knew about deploying to Iraq (stuff I’d learned from working with other service members). He didn’t. Maybe he’d answer more fully if I asked about his hobbies. “Golf. Gym. Off-roading,” he said robotically, and then sat closemouthed.