You just had a fight with your partner. You said a few hurtful things, they said a few hurtful things… and now they're gone and won't talk to you.
You feel like the world is ending as you're left alone scrambling to "fix" things, but they won't respond to any of your texts and ignore your calls.
If this sounds familiar, this guide is for you.
You'll better understand your partner, and how you can respond in order to get them back to a more present state so you can feel secure in the relationship again.
Everyone has different ways of dealing with conflict and stress in their relationships, and your partner’s reactions during tense moments can be anywhere from baffling to downright infuriating.
All of our close relationships are also known as attachments. You and your partner are each one of these styles, and that combo effects how you relate during stress. Chances are your partner shuts down because of their attachment style.
The type to shut down are known as Islands. Understanding them from an attachment style perspective will help you make sense of their behavior.
Islands have learned to be self-sufficient with little help form others. This doesn't mean they're superhuman, but it does mean they're doing a lot of internal processing when faced with challenges. In relationships, if they're not given space to process, islands can start to feel suffocated or trapped.
During stress, islands will instinctively pull away, either emotionally, physically, or both, in order to protect themselves and attempt to find security on their own, or by distracting themselves from the stress.
Too many emotions at once can be hard for an island to process, so they shut down to protect themselves from overwhelm. Attempts at “pulling them in” can cause them to retreat further into their own minds or space until they feel safe enough. Pressuring them to open up makes things worse because it adds to their overwhelm and communicates you don't understand them, which furthers the feeling that they can't open up to you.
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You may notice you turn into a “different person” with lots of emotions and reactions when they pull away. When your partner pulls away to feel safe, they are in survival mode, and not really thinking about how it’s affecting you. This might trigger your inner child to feel abandoned and become very afraid or anxious, even behaving in ways you normally wouldn’t. Before this post, you might have assumed that they were pulling away “because of you”, or because they “didn’t want you”, rather than recognizing they are acting out of their own fear or attachment style based on how they grew up. Now that you see it’s not about you, here’s what you can do differently:
They’ll need to know you can allow them to have space without pressuring them. The more space you can give them, the sooner they will feel safe enough to return and talk things out. If you have agreed to take lots of space, this means physical space: don’t pop up on them, digital space: don’t text them, follow/comment on their social media, and energetic space: don’t pay attention to them, ask friends about them, send gifts, or leave subtle hints to get their attention.
Every time you “reach out”, you are resetting their safety clock back to zero and the process has to start all over again.
And pressuring them to open up before they’re ready to on their own, by saying things like:
…will make things a lot worse.
Giving space VITALLY IMPORTANT for trying to win back islands, because it is the only way for an island to reset and find themselves again so they can come back to relationship.
But it’s so hard not to reach out!
The only way to get them back from a breakup, or even get them back into the room after a fight, is to give them the space they need. The reason it’s hard is because the very thing you need to give them is the opposite of what you need (reassurance). This means in order to get the connection you want, you have to find a different source of connection in the meantime, in order for you to feel safe too.
That new source of love is going to be yourself, and other loved ones. Giving yourself love and compassion in the hardest moments when you want to reach out for their reassurance is the only way to address your inner child’s deepest fear that won’t push them farther away. It will allow you to “respond calmly” rather than “react out of fear”.
Speak to them in a calm, rational tone. If you pressure them, they will feel threatened by the amount of reassurance you need. But if you can lovingly give them space and soothe yourself, they will feel relieved and ready to return to you sooner.
Try not to explode with emotional demands right now, as they won’t be able to meet your needs in this moment, and will likely want to run farther away. Instead, you can make a request like, “I want you to have the space you need to reset from this. What day or time would feel good to check in with me by? I’ll give you space until then.” That’s compassionate communication that shows you understand both of your needs and want to compromise.
If you can catch the behavior soon enough, before they’ve gone totally cold, you can try something like, “It seems like you might be pulling away. What do you need right now in order to reset?” That gives them a chance to feel seen and understood, which can make the time they need apart shorter because you’re starting to prove to them you can attune to their needs.
If you are still together and in contact, you can also let your partner know what’s going on for you. Say something like, “I am feeling so afraid this fight means we’re over. I just need to know that we’re still connected, even while we’re frustrated, and that you still love me underneath these bumps.” Saying this is another way to acknowledge both your needs and willingness to compromise, which is healthy communication at its best.
When your island partner goes cold or disappears is exactly when you need to comfort yourself, that inner child who is afraid of abandonment, so you can give your partner the space they need to feel safe again. You can return to calmness with self-soothing touch on your arms, face, or body (actually giving yourself a hug), along with kind words to yourself.
You can say something to yourself like “Breath deep. I know it’s scary, but I’m still here with you. I’m not going anywhere. You are safe. You are loved.” When you say these words to yourself, you remind your inner child that YOU will never abandon them, even if other people have before. When your inner child recognizes you won’t abandon them, they will release their grip of fear about your partner abandoning, and your emotions will calm back down to a manageable level. You can also return to other healthy friendships you have, to be reminded that you’re not abandoned and there are still people who love you, no matter what.
Recognizing the different needs that you and your partner have during times of stress can help you both take responsibility to show up for yourselves and each other. As you keep practicing supporting your partner when they need to “go away” sometimes, they will feel less threatened and be more able to support you as well. Speak directly about what needs you have and ask them what they need without taking it personally. Being able to fight and repair well together during conflict is one of the biggest indicators of a healthy relationship that is capable of creating a lasting love.