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Crucial Accountability QA

The Silent Spouse

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on February 2, 2005.

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

Dear Unresolved,
When we teach Crucial Conversations Training and ask for the kinds of challenges people face, 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 Accountability, 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 and says he’ll get back to me later. But he never does.” Or, “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.

The key, however, to solving this issue is getting to the right conversation. In Crucial Accountability, we describe a process to help you choose between CPR—or Content, Pattern, and Relationship discussions.

In stressful relationships, 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 speak to each other 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

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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. read more

11 thoughts on “The Silent Spouse”

  1. I didn’t find this as helpful as I’d hoped. But I guess the answer is, there is no easy answer. I’ll keep trying!

  2. What happens if every comment or statement you provide to the other party is taken as an offense or taken as a blame or something. I have always tried to have a conversation that is rational with my wife and it always turns out to be an emotional conversation.

    1. I’m certainly no expert, but I have an inner keyword-checker that clues me in to potential issues when I hear/read a topic. “Every” and “Always” are two of those keywords…and they appear multiple times in your statement. Nothing is “every” or “always”, so I suspect the problem is with the story you are telling yourself about your wife and how irrational she “always” is. I think the only irrational thing I heard is how you expect your wife to keep her emotions out of your “rational” conversations. I suspect your wife’s ability to emote was one of the reasons you fell in love with her. When you think back to your happiest times together, was she emotional then? I wonder if you start your conversations with that FIRMLY in your mind, if that would help? If you turn it from the reason you can’t talk to her, into one of the reasons you love and admire her most…it may help the flow of your conversations. Worth a try? I wish you both the best of luck!

  3. It appears to me that their husband has already allowed some insight into what is bothering them. Unresolved also may want to acknowledge what they stated here about the husband feeling like “You always have to have things your way”. The husband may be feeling as if conversation is not useful, when common ground is never reached. If you can do alot of restating that you hear their position, and are able to come to common ground on some issues (avoiding the one way or the other trap), you will then have an example for future trust about discussion. Otherwise offer some trades, or give him what he wants, and build a discussion from there, as a peace offering.

  4. Personaity types seems to create many differences in this area. The Introvert needs time to think over the issues and might even do better to have them written. The Thinker wants a “logical” conversation with facts and the Feeler wants good feelings to result. These challenges lie underneath the apparent converstion as the framework of different viewpoints.

  5. There seems to be quite a bit of fix it in the comments (although I do like what has been said as it reflects how the commenter has grown in their own understanding). The problem with fix it is that, “What worked for you may not for others.”

    The only thing I see in the comments by ‘Unresolved’ is that her husband does not feel heard. Using CPR should help that. But being trained in Crucial Conversations for work does not always translate well into close personal relationships. Once ‘Unresolved’ becomes aware, things may improve. Or, a third party may be the answer.

  6. Two excellent resources to help people understand the power of the ‘story we tell ourselves about others’ are the Arbinger Institute’s ‘Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box’, and ‘The Anatomy of Peace: Getting to the Heart of Conflict’.

  7. I would just like to share my experience with people who are feeling discouraged by this answer. I first bought CC almost13 years ago. I was frustrated with big issues that somehow never got worked out even though I had exhausted every method that had worked in my life previously and even currently. I tried to rethink what I wanted, the real conversation, how to make things safe etc… I stayed another 12 years in a marriage I should have left long before. What I discovered in the end was that some people have their own stories in their head and they will never be honest until there is nothing left to loose. I believe that for people in our circumstance, one of the last lines in the most important and it seems so nicely stated we can miss it. When you are truly approaching someone with love and have done everything a reasonable person could expect or desire to feel safe and you know you just want the best for you both… And your partner doesn’t respond to this… PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THAT SAYS ABOUT THEM. You can waist valuable years trying to find the trick. I bought into the concept that anything could be resolved if you just did everything right, therefore I needed to do something differently yet. Be aware of what it means when someone who is supposed to love you is unwilling to follow though with commitment, doesn’t hear how you feel and makes everything about them. My ex and I have a good relationship now that we have split and I don’t expect him to follow through or e able to discuss it. I just say weather you remember this discussion tomorrow at all or just completely differently. Let me tell you what my expectations are now and what I will do if they are not met. The absolute firmness that goes with this, I actually learned from our son:). All the best.

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