Experts say that communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship. That’s why it can be deeply troubling when your partner is closed off and guarded.
How do you get them to open up? Below, marriage therapists share the advice they give clients married to uncommunicative spouses.
1. Don’t say “we need to talk.”
No sentence is more worrisome to hear in a relationship than “we need to talk.” If you set up a time to talk, your partner is liable to go on the defense and bottle up his or her emotions; Instead, pick a casual time to pursue the conversation, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who counsels men.
“I’ve counseled men who’ve been willing to open up over coffee at Starbucks on Friday mornings before work or while walking the dog together,” he told The Huffington Post. “Many couples with kids will say that they never have any alone time, but you can usually find it during the day-to-day activities of life if you think creatively.”
2. Don’t broach the subject when you’re both tired.
Don’t bring up something important when your wife just walks in the door or when your husband slips into bed after a long day with the kids, said Diane Spear, a therapist in New York City.
“You don’t want to be so focused on talking that you fail to consider if it’s the right time or not,” Spear said. “You want your partner to feel considered and comfortable when you have big conversations.”
3. Explain why it’s important to you.
If your partner is struggling to open up about something in particular, it might help to explain why you feel a conversation is necessary, said Debra Campbell, a psychologist and couple’s therapist in Melbourne, Australia.
“Talk to your spouse about how it can deepen relationship intimacy when you discover more about what makes both of you tick and what’s bothering you.”
4. Don’t pounce.
If your spouse has seemingly checked out of your marriage, it makes sense that you might respond with a little anger. But if your aim is to have a constructive conversation, anger isn’t going to do much good, said Aaron Anderson, a marriage and family therapist in Denver, Colorado.
“Anger provokes an instinctual fight-or-flight response in whoever you’re talking to,” he said. “Your spouse will either fight back or shut down and neither one is good for communication.”
Instead, try to hold your temper and use a relaxed tone of voice.
“A little patience and kindness will go a lot further than anger in getting your spouse to open up,” Anderson said.
5. Open up first about your own vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability breeds more vulnerability, said Kari Carroll, a couples therapist in Portland, Oregon. If your spouse did something last week that triggered emotions from your past, open up about it.
“If you talk about past hurts, your S.O will be more likely to understand the context of this pain for you because you have shared how you’ve felt pain from others,” she said. “When your partner sees you find safety in the relationship, they are more likely to do the same.”
6. Listen intently.
When your spouse does want to talk about something that’s bothering them, actively listen, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia. That means not jumping in right away with reassuring comments like, “Don’t worry, it will be OK!”
“That shows concern but it’s not actually listening,” Deverich said. “Usually, quiet partners have learned in life not to bother expressing their feelings because they’ve been overrode by others who engage at a louder level.”
The next time your spouse has something to say, hold back and listen.
“Try just being quiet for about 15 seconds, maintain eye contact and a soft expression,” she said. “If they continue talking, you continue listening. Engage with just your most important sentences, not paragraphs.”
7. Ask open-ended questions.
You’re not likely to get the answers you want with “yes” or “no” questions, said Elizabeth Earnshaw, a therapist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Questions like ‘Are you sad?’ don’t leave a lot of room for communication and can feel invasive or forceful to a closed off partner,” she said. “Try asking ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Tell me about your day’ instead.”
8. Check in but don’t be obnoxious about it.
From here on out, make a point to check in with your spouse. The trick is to do it subtly, so your spouse doesn’t feel forced to open up or talk, said Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
“You need to be able to address the elephant in the room but they need to know they can get out of an uncomfortable emotional conversation,” she said. “If they say there’s nothing wrong, don’t act like it’s a personal insult. Be light about your check-ins and you may plant the seed for them to open up in the future.”