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,…