Crucial Conversations QA

Unresponsive Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

I agree that when you’re talking with someone about a high stakes issue you need to move from silence or violence to healthy dialogue. But what if you’re married to a guy who doesn’t want to talk? Then what? How do you communicate with a non-responsive spouse?

Silent Spouse

Dear Silent,

As we end each of our large public presentations a group of people typically hangs back to ask questions. In these groups, on question almost always comes up. How do you get to dialogue if your spouse doesn’t even want to talk? In your case, how do you have an open conversation with a husband who won’t respond?

If we pursue this question a little further, I’m guessing we’d we learn that it’s not that your husband never talks; chances are he’s more than willing to go on for hours about his hobby or work or sporting events. But he never wants to talk about feelings. He never wants to work through interpersonal problems to both of your satisfaction.

So here’s the question: How do you work through problems with how you communicate if the other party doesn’t want to communicate?

When dealing with a non-responsive spouse, make that very issue (the fact that your spouse walks away from meaningful or difficult discussions) the topic of your crucial conversation. Talk about how you talk to each other. Nothing else will do.

Start by asking if it would be okay to take a few minutes to resolve a problem that has you concerned. Make sure you set aside a time and place that will give you a few minutes alone and uninterrupted. Start the conversation by thanking your spouse for helping you work through an important issue. Then clarify the issue you want to discuss and establish mutual purpose. That is, explain that you want to develop a way of talking about your concerns in a way that works for both of you.

Don’t start with the goal of changing your spouse so that you benefit and he or she sacrifices. If this is your objective, your spouse will see through your ruse and become defensive or even resentful. This isn’t about transforming the other person or winning; it is about coming to something that is mutually satisfactory. If necessary, you may want to clarify any possible misinterpretations up front by using a contrasting statement of what you don’t and do want. For example, “I don’t want to force you into something that makes you uncomfortable. I do want to find a way to talk about issues that are important to me in a way that works for both of us.”

Next, when describing the challenge, don’t lead with your conclusions. “You know what you’re problem is? You’re simply uncommunicative.” Broad conclusions followed with insulting characterizations only fuel the fires of debate and mistrust. Instead, describe a behavior or two that has you concerned. Since the problem has been going on for a while, take care to suggest that you’re not concerned about a single instance, but about an ongoing pattern. Here’s what this might sound like: “The last few times I’ve wanted to talk about something that has me concerned, you’ve told me that you’re busy and that we could talk later. When you didn’t return to the topic later on, I brought it up again and then you suggested I was nagging. I don’t want to hound you. I do want to find a time and way to talk about issues without having to bring up the topic again and again.” And then ask your spouse for his or her ideas. “What would work best for you?”

By setting aside a time, clarifying your mutual objective, focusing on behavior, avoiding accusations, and asking your spouse for his or her recommendations, you’ll avoid the emotional pitfalls that typically accompany relationship discussions. Instead, you’ll make it safe for your loved one to talk openly, without feeling defensive or attacked. Once it’s safe for your spouse to talk, it’ll be safe for you as well. Just keep your goal in mind—you want to come up with something that works for both of you. This will keep you from coming up with a one-sided, and eventually doomed, solution.

Best wishes,