You’re out having a meal together. So far the evening has gone well. But then something gets said. The atmosphere chills and your partner goes silent on you.
It’s a familiar experience by now in your relationship. The thing is, you’ve tried hard in the past to get him / her back to be present but you know it’s a lost cause for now. It’ll only end in you losing it or clamming up yourself.
You know it probably won’t last, but the night out has soured.
The unpredictability of this happening, the fall out, the agony of getting through it, the exhilaration of getting through it, the making up closeness, have all become exhausting. You’re not sure if you can carry on this way anymore.
Of course there are different types of moodiness (sulky withdrawal, teenage tantrum, seething anger, depression) but the focus for this article is about silent and sulky moodiness.
If I had a magic wand I’d be writing about how you can change your partner’s moodiness.
Sadly, I can’t do that. But I can ask you this question.
What is it that happens to you when you are confronted with your partner’s moodiness?
Do you go into a rage yourself wanting to let them really know about how bad this is for you? Or does your world collapse inside, you feel hopeless, depressed, powerless?
Here’s what might be happening.
Going silent on you
When someone goes silent on you or moody, it may well be because they can’t express their own anger. It’s less distressing to them to push it down and bury it but the cost of doing that is high.
Imagine trying to hold the lid on a pressure cooker; it might take all your strength to hold it on. Suppressing anger is like that. It doesn’t leave much energy for anything else.
When someone doesn’t express their anger but goes silent, it cuts off the possibility of dialogue and communication. It’s not even possible to receive the anger and respond to it.
Your power in the situation is taken away. Feeling powerless can lead you to feeling angry, or to have that feeling of collapse. Neither is easy to bear.
What can you do?
The first step is to notice your response. Is it anger or withdrawal?
With awareness you have more choice. Here are some options you could explore:
- Gently point out what your partner is doing, the impact on you and invite them to talk about it. It may take several goes for them to really hear and trust that it’s ok.
- Remove yourself and be clear to your partner why you are withdrawing.
- Stay with them, aware of what you are feeling about their silence or moodiness and tolerate it if you can.
There are no right or wrongs here. But the shift you are making is from feeling powerless in the face of their mood to taking responsibility for the only person you can in this situation: you.
When counselling clients come to see me, there is a myth that we often explore. It’s that it is their responsibility to fix the other person or to make them feel better.
If you experienced parental narcissistic abuse or childhood emotional neglect, this can feel very difficult. As a child, you may have well felt it was your role to make your mum or dad feel ok.
If you didn’t there were consequences. Their withdrawal or emotional absence. Shaming or distancing you. All things, which for a child, would feel catastrophic.
As an adult, you can only be responsible for your own feelings and to act on them, or not. That doesn’t mean you can’t have empathy and compassion for the other person’s experience, but it’s not up to you to fix it.
Ultimately it’s for you to decide whether you can bear the feelings that come up in the face of moodiness. But knowing you have a choice, and that the only person you are responsible for taking care of is yourself, can be very liberating.
This week’s lifeline
Find some time and space for reflection. Think of a recent scenario where you felt responsible for someone else’s feelings. Play the scene back in your mind as vividly as possible.
What was said or not said; how did you feel? Were you left feeling angry, or silenced or powerless?
Now play back the same scene, from the perspective that you are only taking care of your own feelings. What did you need to do differently? Was it stay with the experience, get angry, withdraw?
How might you deal with the same situation another time?
Feel like a partner or relative’s moodiness is having a negative impact on you?
If you’d like to explore how to manage your response differently, why not get in touch for a first counselling appointment?