One of the most frequent complaints we hear from our clients and students (and admittedly, it tends to be women who are voicing it) is that one partner is resistant to talking. Their complaints are “I can’t get him to open up. No matter what I do, I get nothing more than a one-word response. Sometimes I don’t even get that!” and “I’m so frustrated that I could scream!”        


Refusing to talk to your partner about upsetting issues can be more damaging than discussing them. If one partner refuses to participate in a conversation, either directly or by being unavailable, this pattern can spiral down into feelings of resentment or even contempt. 


The resistant partner may be overt or covert about closing lines of communication. Direct refusals to engage in discussions such as “I don’t want to talk about it” often contain a warning that they will leave, get angry, or punish their partner if he or she persists in trying to converse. Such exchanges can turn into a contest of wills, communicating that he or she won’t “give in.” 


The resistant partner needs to know that being less defensive isn’t submitting to another person’s will. What is required is the ability to see beyond the either/or thinking that such impasses create. 


Both partners are fearful, but usually not of the same thing.


The partner who shuts down many appear angry, but it’s likely that he or she is also fearful. The partner who doesn’t want to talk feels less skilled at articulating their concerns and is afraid that he or she won’t be able to hold their ground. 


The initiator fears that if a purposeful conversation doesn’t occur, the relationship will be jeopardized. It’s not unusual for one person to be more concerned about the relationship’s stability, and the other to be sensitive to a loss of freedom. Both connection and personal autonomy are essential aspects of any committed partnership.


When the relationship is threatened, the partner who is more attuned to connection has a stronger desire to fix the imbalance. When they are met with a less than enthusiastic response, the challenge is to resist the temptation to throw their hands up in exasperation. One way to approach the issue is to say, “We’ve got a problem,” a statement that is a non-accusatory way of expressing concern. 


Beware of becoming resigned


Until both partners share a more equal level of concern about their connection, responsibility for addressing the issue will fall to the more motivated partner. What does not work is to become resigned to tolerating a distant relationship which is a prescription for misery. 


If you’ve been on either side of such an impasse, you know how painful it can be, wanting to explode in frustration or withdraw. You may have been the one who was unable to get your partner to talk or maybe you’ve experienced feeling pressured to open up when you didn’t feel ready to do so. Here are a few guidelines to help you to break the impasse:


  1. Create an agreement to discuss the issue. If now isn’t a good time, find a time that works for both and commit to it. When you do sit down to talk, both of you state your intentions for what you’d like to have happened. For example, “I hope that we can both feel closer with more understanding” or “I feel more comfortable talking about the hard subject that we’ve been avoiding” or “I’m committed to listening more openly to your feelings and needs and not be defensive when you say things that are difficult for me to hear.”
  2. Be proactive. Approach the conversation with an intention to understand their underlying feelings. 
  3. Take responsibility for your part. Keep in mind that in all breakdowns, both partners have played a part in creating those circumstances. Accepting this responsibility empowers each of you to break the cycle of blame.
  4. Interrupt deeply embedded patterns. Even when there has been a history of previous failures, hold a vision of success. 
  5. Speak in ways that promote trust
  6. Resist the temptation to justify. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. The time for being understood will come after your partner feels heard.
  7. Be patient. These situations usually don’t resolve themselves in a single conversation.
  8. Acknowledge improvements. Express appreciation for them. 
  9. Thank your partner. Regardless of the outcome of the dialogue, voice a desire to continue the conversation at a later date.


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Comment by Linda Bloom on September 8, 2020 at 2:41am

Abstract: Refusing to talk to your partner about upsetting issues can be more damaging than discussing them. To move beyond such a breakdown in communicating about important issues is the ability to see beyond the either/or thinking that such impasses create. It’s not a matter of “giving in” or “holding out.” Searching out the fears that keep the pattern in place help to unseat the avoidant pattern. There are nine ideas to support those who want to have more free- flowing communication about even the toughest subjects.  

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