Dear Dr Sadaqat Ali,
I try to talk things out with my husband to reach some consensus, but he keeps backing off. Sometimes he says, ‘I don’t feel like talking about it right now, but ‘later’ never comes.’ At other times, it’s a simple ‘”I don’t know, do whatever you want.” Or “You always have to have things your way,” and this ends the conversation. The topics could include trivial things like having guests over for dinner, going for shopping or changing the car… to more important issues like match making for children. I end up doing everything by myself and then having a sullen partner. Please tell me how I can get my husband to talk. I feel very frustrated and hopeless as if I were hitting my head against a stone wall. Signed, Unresolved
I can understand how frustrating it must be for you when the other person is not even ready to talk. The ‘silent spouse’ is quite a widespread problem. You have already taken the first step in the right direction; the realisation that you want better communication. Negotiations about high-stakes, emotional issues that two people see differently are precisely where we need help. Remember that if you don’t talk them out, you are sure to act them out. Let us go over a few important points together and you can evaluate where you stand and the changes you want to make.
First, before we talk, we need to start with a bit of soul searching and ask ourselves, “What nonverbal messages am I sending?” ‘Have I already held court in my head and found my husband guilty?’ The key questions for soul searching are: Does the other person really believe that I respect him and care about what he wants? Do my words, my body language, my tone, reflect respect, care and empathy for the other person? The next step is finding a shared goal. These questions help us to focus on mutual and long-term goals. Give him a reason to talk to you; an incentive. Say what he can gain by the conversation. Refer to something he values. We might want to ask ourselves why he does not talk..? Sometimes, we get so good at debating, that the other person prefers to remain silent rather than enter into a battle of words with us. We must work to maintain both, mutual goal and dignity for both of us throughout the conversation to get to win/win solutions.
One thing you need to remember is not to talk when either of you are tired, angry, hungry, or pressed for time or when mentally occupied with other things. Choose a relaxed time and a tranquil environment. Have a face to face conversation. No emails. Here you might well ask, “But how do we show our respect to get the conversation started..?” The answer is quite simple; ask the other person for his permission to talk. This reinforces that we respect him and care about his convenience. What is also important is to think ahead of what the other person might fear or take umbrage to and prevent misunderstanding by clarifying what you don’t mean and what you actually mean. ‘ I don’t mean that you and I don’t love each other.. or that I am not happy with you.. All I want is for us is to talk comfortably with each other and come to decisions that work for both of us.’ Acknowledging the other person’s good intentions and positive behavior in the past is also a good idea. ‘You have been supportive of me. I remember how you helped me, when my father passed away.’ We must remember to start with agreement: During a discussion, be appreciative of the other person’s point of view. Don’t start a sentence with ‘No but..’ Agree where you can. Acknowledge the idea or purpose of the other person.
Finally come to the part where you differ and explore the pros and cons. Stay receptive. Keep your voice neutral to empathic. If we find ourselves getting upset in the middle of a discussion, the thing to do is to excuse ourselves and go have some water, a walk, deep breathe, think about what we really want and then come back to the discussion in a positive mood. In addition, asking ourselves a neutral question [ like solving a math equation such as 345×25 equals..?] can get out Master Brain working again.
If we are emotionally collected we can talk about the most sensitive of issues. This is the power of the pause. Apologize if appropriate: At times we start a conversation very pleasantly, with the best of intentions, but then our emotions suddenly go out of control. We lose sight of our real goal. Before we know it, the other person clams up or gets angry and the opportunity for arriving at a win/win solution goes up in smoke. If this has been the case, apologize and announce your good intention not to fall into the same pattern again. ‘I know I get rather intense at times and I need to get better at understanding how we are both feeling.’ From now on, I will try to listen more and stay calm.”
So far we have spoken about how to talk. The next part will deal with what to talk about. Having the right conversation is important. We need to ask ourselves; Do we want to talk about what just happened, what usually happens or how the pattern is affecting the relationship. In relationships that are stressed, talking about what just happened is not going to work. So I’d suggest you talk about how you talk to each other. It might sound something like this: “Could we talk about how we communicate? I’d like to understand how we talk together and what we both want. Last time we talked you said that I was trying to get my way, and I don’t want to come across that way. I want to talk things out so we both agree. What do you think?” Make sure that you are sincerely interested in understanding where your spouse is coming from.
Give time to think: If the person still refuses to talk, I’d ask, “Will you please think about it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I do want to deal with some of these issues so we can work well together. Can we schedule a time tomorrow to meet and talk about our relationship?” Explore natural consequences. Talk about the natural consequences of being unable to communicate well. For example, you could explain how the lack of talking about issues is affecting your intimacy. Contrast it by what it could be with better communication.
The key is to get curious instead, not furious. It’s easy to slip into less than helpful behaviors. Calm yourself. Give yourself time. You don’t have to settle complicated issues in one sitting. Space them out over several sittings. Visualizing a congenial dialogue with your husband, is helpful. Avoid gossiping about your husband to your friends and family members. And most importantly, avoid getting sullen and withdrawing from him. Maintain cordial relationship, no matter what.
What you do, when the going gets tough, is what matters most. This will determine the results you achieve, the relationships you build, and how you feel about yourself.
Good luck, Best regards
Dr. Sadaqat Ali