What to Do When a Client Shuts Down in Therapy

Therapists encounter various challenges when working with couples, but one of the most difficult is engaging a distant, emotionally shutdown partner. It can be more challenging to connect with someone who is closed-off than someone who is expressive, even if they are resistant to therapy. The surface of impassive stoicism is slick and difficult to penetrate, leaving therapists feeling disconnected. This article explores strategies for working with shut-down clients and provides a case study to illustrate these techniques.

The Struggle of Engaging Shut-Down Clients

Many therapists struggle to stay engaged with shut-down clients and may resort to focusing on cognitions and behaviors instead of emotions. However, this approach fails to address the core issue and reinforces the client’s avoidance of feelings. Shutting down emotions is often a defense mechanism against terrifying, humiliating, and threatening feelings. Thus, therapists face a delicate balancing act, requiring them to be gentle and persistent in moving forward despite the client’s resistance.

A Case Study: Josh and Jennifer

The article follows the story of Josh, an Army officer, and his wife Jennifer, as they seek therapy after two failed attempts. Jennifer was deeply concerned about their marriage, while Josh remained emotionally closed-off. He saw his wife as a companion but was unwilling to form an emotional connection. Josh’s military career and camaraderie with his fellow soldiers were his primary focus. On the other hand, Jennifer felt increasingly clingy and longed for emotional closeness.

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Breaking Through Radio Chatter

The therapist in the case study, practicing Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), faced significant challenges in connecting with Josh. He communicated using what he called “radio chatter” – brief, concise communication devoid of emotion. Despite the therapist’s attempts to evoke emotions and engage him, Josh remained guarded. It became clear that a different approach was needed.

Establishing Safety and Predictability

Realizing the need to slow down, the therapist focused on creating safety and predictability for Josh. By assuring him that he could leave the therapy session at any time and explaining the EFT approach, the therapist aimed to establish trust. Josh responded positively to the therapist’s transparency and showed interest in the empirical research supporting EFT. This initial connection helped build a sense of competence and confidence in the therapeutic process.

Emotional Breakthroughs and Understanding

As therapy progressed, breakthrough moments occurred. Josh and Jennifer started to open up about their experiences and emotions. Jennifer’s tears and vulnerability touched Josh, leading him to recognize the depth of her feelings. Through the therapist’s guidance, Josh was able to reflect on his own experiences and acknowledge his helplessness. The couple began to understand each other’s perspectives and develop empathy.

Embracing Vulnerability and Reconnection

Gradually, Josh and Jennifer learned to cope with distressing relationship moments in healthier ways. Josh no longer relied on shutting down, and Jennifer became less clingy. They started to communicate openly and found their way back to each other with greater ease and less drama. The therapy provided them with tools to navigate their relationship and rebuild emotional connection.

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Engaging shut-down clients requires a soft, slow, and simple therapeutic approach. By creating an environment of safety and predictability, therapists can help clients feel comfortable enough to open up and explore their emotions. The case study of Josh and Jennifer illustrates the transformative power of therapy when it comes to overcoming emotional barriers and reconnecting in a relationship.

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