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The Silent Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

Whenever my husband and I get into a conversation that he doesn’t want to continue, he will resort to saying something like, “You always have to have things your way,” and will refuse to continue the conversation. This always leaves issues unresolved and interferes with other areas of our life. How can I get around this?


Dear Unresolved,

When we teach Crucial Conversations Training and ask for the kinds of challenges people are facing, this issue comes up in several ways. Some talk about being married to a mime. Others comment that their spouse seems to have a completely different idea about the number of words needed to discuss a tough topic–particularly at home. Still others share that their spouse will talk about everything and anything except what really matters–then retreat into silence.

This issue is so common and so tough that we’ve addressed it at some length in both “crucial” books in the “Yeah, But . . .” chapters. In Crucial Conversations, it’s “Yeah, but my spouse is the person you talked about earlier. You know, I try to hold a meaningful discussion, I try to work through an important issue, and he or she simply withdraws. What can I do?” In Crucial Confrontations, there are two: “Yeah, but 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.” “Yeah, but I keep bringing up the same problems over and over, and my spouse and children continue in their old ways. It makes me feel like a nag, and I don’t want to be a nag.” There are more detailed answers in the books than I can provide here, but let me tackle a couple of points.

First and foremost, we need to start with heart. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself the questions that will help you get to mutual purpose. “What do I REALLY want for me? For the other person? For our relationship?” This question helps you fine-tune your motive and helps move your intentions from possibly self-centered and short-term to mutual and long-term. This also helps you make sure that when you share what you’re thinking you are starting from a safe place rather than leading with emotions and accusations.

Key, however, to solving this issue is getting to the right conversation. In Crucial Confrontations, we describe a process to help you choose between Content, Pattern, and Relationship discussions.

In relationships that are stressed, talking about content is not going to work. Content issues could include not cleaning the garage, not coming home on time, spending too much money, etc. What you’ve described in your question is clearly pattern and relationship. The problem is a pattern. It is recurring. It’s affecting your relationship in many ways. So I’d suggest you talk about talking. It might sound something like this: “Could we talk about how we communicate? I’d like to understand how we each view 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 if we can. Would that be okay?” If he agrees, he might ask, “Okay, where do we start?” You might then respond, “I’ve noticed that when an issue is important, we start talking and if we see things differently, you cut off the conversation just when I want to talk more. Can you help me understand what’s going on?”

Of course, there is no one set of scripts that work. The important part is that you have put the right issues on the table–pattern and relationship–and you are sincerely interested in understanding where your spouse is coming from. If you make it safe enough, you can also be candid in what you observe about your spouse’s behaviors and how those impact you. This is give and take. This is dialogue.

Crucial conversations are interactions about high-stakes, emotional issues that two people see differently. Remember that you can talk them out, or act them out. The challenge here is to talk about the right issue.

Best wishes,


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Accountability. Learn more about Crucial Accountability.

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3 thoughts on “The Silent Spouse

  1. My wife and I have this same type fo conversation. Thank you for allowing me to recognize that my form of communication is not affective. Using the techniques describe here, and in the book, have really made an impact on how I communicate to others.

  2. I have had the same issue with my husband, who is an introvert and likes time to process. What has worked with me is to lay out my thoughts, tell him that I need to hear what he’s thinking (and why) and then ask him to let me know when he’s ready to share his thoughts. Occasionally I need to ask him to give me a time when he can talk, but now that he’s got more space to think and knows it will be safe, he is good about getting back to me. I know it won’t work for everyone, but thought I’d share what worked for me. We’ve had some good dialog about his addictions and my co-dependency using this approach – an issue we handled in a very disfunctional way in the past.

  3. Wow! Thank you unresolved for sharing this issue! I have this exact problem in my relationship. I have to remember to start these conversations from a safe place which is not always easy. Over time the pattern of being dismissed is very frustratating and you lose your sense of respect. I need to stop, take a moment consider what my intentions are with starting from heart and then address the issue from a safe place. I know it’s going to take me some time but I’m willing to work through this. Thank you!

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