One of the most frequently-voiced complaints that we hear from our clients and students (and admittedly, it usually tends to be women who we are hearing it from) is "He won't talk to me." "I can't get him to open up. No matter what I do, I can't get anything more than a one-word or one syllable response. Sometimes I don't even get that!" "I'm so frustrated, I could scream!"
No one likes to hear bad news but sometimes the consequences of refusing to listen or talk about upsetting occurrences can be far more painful and damaging than the experience of discussing those issues.
The noted marriage researcher John Gottman claims that 85% of the conversations that occur between marital couples that deal with differences or difficulties, are initiated by women. An undisclosed but probably high percentage of those conversations do not leave either party feel satisfied or complete with the subject discussed. When conversations end leaving one or both partners feeling frustrated, disappointed, hurt, angry or unfinished, not only is there a feeling of incompletion, but there is a diminished willingness to re-engage at a future time to continue the dialogue. When there is an accumulation of these "incompletions", optimism diminishes and feelings of hopelessness and resentment begin to set in.
If one partner refuses, either directly or by being unavailable, to participate in a conversation this pattern can hijack the relationship, creating a vicious circle that can spiral down into entrenched feelings of resentment, alienation, and disappointment, or worse.
Methods of closing down lines of communication can be overt or covert. Direct or overt refusals to engage in discussions, such as "I don't want to talk about it" often contain an implicit threat to leave, get angry or punish the person attempting to initiate the conversation if they persist in their efforts to converse. The situation will become either volatile or intractable, depending upon how each person responds to the other's stance. ,Becoming less defensive and more open doesn't necessarily translate into submitting to the other person's will or demands. What it does require however, is the ability to see beyond the either/or thinking that such impasses can create.
While it may seem that the person who is refusing to talk is motivated by anger and resistance, it's likely that there are other feelings that underlie those that appear to be dominant. While it often appears that one person is angry and the other is frightened, more often than not, both partners are fearful, but usually not of the same thing. Frequently, the resistant partner is fearful that he or she will not be able to successfully hold their ground in a conversation in which they may feel less skilled than their partner at articulating their concerns and defending themselves against an 'opponent' who is likely to 'win' an argument that results in their feeling defeated.
The initiator on the other hand may be motivated by the fear that if a purposeful conversation doesn't occur, distance and disconnection will occur and jeopardize the foundation of the relationship, potentially destabilizing it and putting its survivability at risk. It's not unusual for one person in the relationship to be more acutely aware of and sensitive to a loss of freedom and personal power, and the other to be more concerned about the health and stability of the relationship. Connection and personal autonomy are the essential aspects of any committed partnership, each representing what seems like an opposite extreme in a powerful polarity.
When the relationship bond is threatened, the partner who is more attuned to the level of connection is more motivated to seek a correction to what she or she may perceive as an imbalance in the system. In all likelihood, her efforts to engage the other will be met with a less than enthusiastic response, since he is probably less consciously concerned and may perceive his partner's concern as an attempt to exert control or undue influence over him and continue to resist any efforts to connect.
The challenge here is for the initiator to resist the temptation to throw her hands up in exasperation and give up in anger and frustration. Acknowledging that "we've got a problem" can sometimes be sufficient to diminish defensiveness since it is a less accusatory way of expressing concern and doesn't imply blame or judgment.
While it may seem unfair that the person who appears to have a higher degree of concern about the relationship has the responsibility to more frequently initiate a dialogue and have to deal with his partner's resistance, until both partners share a more equal degree of concern and responsibility for the relationship, this will probably continue to be the case. This shift in equalizing relationship responsibility will probably, in time come about as necessary dialogues take place that are respectful, non-blaming, non-accusatory, and non-adversarial in nature. What does not work is to become resigned to a stalemate and being willing to tolerate a distant, cold, and disappointing relationship. Such resignation is a prescription for prolonged mutual misery. There is no ground of neutrality when it comes to relationships. They are, to paraphrase Bob Dylan "either busy being born or busy dying", and allowing unfinished relationship business to accumulate puts relationships on a death trip.
If you've ever been on either side of this type of an impasse, you know how painful it can be and how strong the impulse is to either explode with frustration or just check out, shut down or withdraw. You may have been the one who was unable to get your partner to talk or maybe you've experienced being felt pressured to open up and talk about your feelings, when the only feelings that you had were to "Leave me alone!" Either way, you're not alone. It might be comforting to know that if you find yourself in a situation like this there are steps that can be taken that can interrupt the impasse.
A key factor of this process is to diminish the level of fear, anxiety and defensiveness by adopting an intention to create a safe and non-blaming context for a conversation that enables both partners to feel trusting and safe enough to be able to listen and respond to each other non-defensively. Even the staunchest resister will become more open and engaged when the threat of attack is no longer present. To make that happen the person seeking to initiate the dialogue must be able get himself centered, calmed down, fully present and grounded in an intention to listen and speak without judgment or blame. This, as you may have noticed is easier said than done, but it is, with practice, possible and necessary if there is to be a break in the impasse.
Here are a few guidelines:
1. Create an agreement to discuss the issue. If now isn't a good time find a time that works for both of you and commit to it.
2. At the beginning of the dialogue state your intentions for what it is that you each seek to have happen out of your interaction. (For example, "I hope that we can both feel closer to and more understanding of each other" or "I hope that we will both begin to feel more comfortable addressing some of the difficult subjects that we've been avoiding" or "I hope to be able to listen more openly to your feelings and needs and not be so defensive when you say things that are hard for me to hear."
3. Be proactive by getting yourself centered, grounded, and open, with a willingness to listen deeply to your partner's underlying feelings as well as her spoken words..
4. Take responsibility for your own part. Keep in mind that in all relationship breakdowns, both partners have played a part in getting to the circumstances that are currently present. Accepting this responsibility empowers each of you to interrupt the cycle of blame.
5. Regardless of your history or previous failures, keep in mind that it is possible to interrupt even deeply embedded patterns and hold a vision of a successful outcome.
6. Speak in ways that promote trust, respect, safety, and openness
7. Resist the temptation to explain or justify your position or feelings and seek primarily to understand rather than to be understood. The time for that will come after your partner feels heard and understood.
8. Remember that feelings of greatest frustration and impatience are likely to arise when things begin to feel most hopeful.
9. Be patient. These situations are generally don't resolve themselves in a single conversation. Breaking entrenched patterns is a process that occurs over time, not an event.
10. Recognize the incremental improvements during the dialogue, and show appreciation for even the smallest positive results.
11. Don't concern yourself with your partner's intentions even if they are not completely consistent with yours. Do your best to focus on honoring your own intentions instead.
12. Thank your partner at the end of the dialogue, regardless of the outcome and express a desire to continue the process at a later date.
Interrupting entrenched relationship impasses is rarely a quick or easy process, but in nearly all cases, the willingness to take the necessary steps can produce an outcome that far exceeds what either partner previously experienced or even imagined. What are you waiting for?