MY SPOUSE NEVER wants to talk about anything. I experience a problem with him, and he tells me not to worry or not now or I ve got it all wrong, or he just turns back to the TV set and says he ll get back to me later. But he never does.
When the researchers we referred to in the Introduction asked newlywed couples to talk about a topic that typically led to an argument, they noticed a common pattern among the couples who later ended up divorcing. Not only did those couples use poor techniques when trying to discuss a controversial topic, more often than not one of them tried to work through the issue to its resolution while the other tried to escape.
The fact that one of the pair wants to talk while the other prefers not to is the common pattern in strained relationships. Not only can t people talk well, but one cuts off any avenue of resolution, and matters only get worse . This is a big deal.
If ever there was a pattern that needs to be confronted, this is it. Any single instance may not seem like that big of a deal, but over time the pattern is killing the relationship. So talk about the pattern.
First, ask if it would be okay to talk about an issue because you think that doing that would strengthen your relationship. You want to be able to talk more openly and freely about problems; your spouse seems to prefer to remain quiet. This is the problem. Fight your natural proclivity to focus on the other person. Instead, acknowledge any complaints the other person may have about what you may be doing to drive him or her to silence. Hint: When people move to silence, it s typically because they feel verbally outgunned. If that s the case with you, acknowledge that sometimes you guilt-trip or dominate or hound the other person until he or she succumbs. You want to change this.
When you frame the conversation as an opportunity to solve problems the other person cares about and acknowledge some of the things you ve done that might be contributing to the problem, you re creating safety. This, of course, is always the best place to start.
With that done, don t demand that the conversation happen now. Set aside a time to talk. The other person gets to pick when. One of the reasons important discussions often get sidelined is that the other person isn t emotionally up to it. He or she arrives home from a trip, you ve been musing for days, and bang , before he or she can catch a breath , a huge issue needs to be resolved. Choose your time carefully . You re going to be talking about a longtime pattern. This topic isn t time-sensitive.
When you do talk, share your concerns along with your tentative conclusion that he or she may be purposely avoiding key problem-solving discussions. Don t make this an accusation. Share two or three quick examples and then suggest that this is what is going on. Then prime. Is it because the discussions often don t go well? Is there a way to make sure that they don t end up as arguments? Is there something you can do to make sure that they run more smoothly? Make it safe for the other person to explain why he or she thinks it isn t safe.
Jointly brainstorm things you can do to make sure that you re both comfortable holding crucial confrontations . Is your timing wrong? Are you waiting too long and then getting angry ? Stick with the brainstorming until you ve brought barriers to the surface and found ways to remove most of them. Make this conversational. Lovingly try to resolve the issue. Don t try to fix the other person.