Tell Me About It: She shuts down emotionally

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Her tough past has her shutting down emotionally.

Adapted from an online discussion.

Question: My new girlfriend was emotionally abused by her husband. He took his own life over a year ago. One thing he did was pick fights: He'd do something she hated, over and over, until she got mad, then a terrible row would ensue. She learned to deal with this by not reacting, which made him mad, but seemed to work better for her.

Now, it seems she's "turned off" the reaction mechanism. If I do something that would bother most people, either inadvertently or in fun, there's no reaction. I wonder if this is a red flag, whether it's a sign of other problems, or whether this is GF 2.0 and her way of growing.

Answer: Why would you "do something that would bother most people . . . in fun"? I get the inadvertent part, but the other part sounds as if you're baiting her to see whether and how she'll react. Wanting to know is understandable, but trying to provoke and test her, if that's what you're doing, is not cool.

If you're doing it just to be goofy, explain that and see if she can distinguish past from present and roll with it. If she can't, see whether you're comfortable toning it down. Standard new-relationship tweaking.

To the larger question, the only thing that feels right to say is that if your girlfriend hasn't gotten therapy in the aftermath of her husband's abuse and suicide, then I fervently hope she does. That is a lot of messed-up stuff for one person to process.

It's not, however, a gimme that her nonreactions are a bad thing. I (and plenty of others) devote a lot of electrons to the cause of acting vs. reacting. I believe a lot of relationships would be more rewarding, and trusting, if people in them resisted the impulse to react with their first emotional response to every little thing, and instead made thoughtful choices to act.

What you're looking for here is whether she has learned to be calm or has defensively gone numb. The difference is often apparent in how giving a person is; it's difficult to shut off just one type of emotion, so if she's merely calm, then I'd expect her to be loving, open, and calm. If she's numb, then I'd expect her affection, joy, and enthusiasm valves to be "turned off" as well.

 

Comment: Having been in a relationship that was terribly emotionally abusive, and learning that nonreaction was the only tolerable choice when being baited, one becomes very careful about acting on one's first emotional response. I still overreact internally to things, especially early in a relationship when there is little to judge by.

I don't think that makes someone emotionally numb, just cautious, and maybe this woman is debating whether she wants to be with someone who tries to mess with that "for fun." So tread lightly. Be nice.

Answer: Be nice - easy thing to forget. Thanks for your insight.

 


E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.