Put an under- and over- communicator together, and you have one spouse dying for some silence and the other one trying to squeeze a few more words out of the non-talker. We have learned to see the humor in this but also extend grace toward the other when the talker wants to have a conversation, and the thinker wants time to think it through.
Oh, the silence. The tension. The things that go through your mind when your spouse won’t open up and talk.
Sometimes it’s personality, sometimes you’re dealing with an internal (rather than external/verbal) processor, sometimes it’s you, and sometimes there are too many wounds between the two of you for your spouse to trust that what they say will be safe. By keeping a few principles in mind about your spouse, yourself, and your calling to be a person of understanding and grace, you can give your spouse breathing room and a safe place to talk about what is on their heart.
Here are six things to do when your spouse won’t open up:
1. Understand Your Spouse’s Method of Processing
Everyone has a different communication style. And everyone processes situations differently. Most often in marriage, your spouse will be the opposite of what you are when it comes to whether they process internally (withdrawing, remaining quiet) or externally (wanting to “talk it out” to figure it out.) To get your spouse to open up, you need to figure out how they think and communicate.
I’ve pegged my husband, Hugh, as an “under communicator” when it comes to issues in our marriage. But he happens to see me as an “over-communicator,” which can be just as annoying to him as his silence is to me. Put an under- and over- communicator together, and you have one spouse dying for some silence and the other one trying to squeeze a few more words out of the non-talker. We have learned to see the humor in this but also extend grace toward the other when the talker wants to have a conversation, and the thinker wants time to think it through.
Consider starting a conversation with your spouse to understand better how they process life. You might say, “I was reading that some people process internally and some process externally. Which one do you think you are, and which one do I appear to be?” It might open the door to not only discussion but learning more about one another so you two can extend more grace and understanding toward each other.
2. Make Your Spouse Feel Safe
Communication is risky. Saying what is on one’s heart can feel dangerous to anyone who may fear being rejected, misunderstood, or accused of stirring things up if their words are taken the wrong way. Whether you’ve given your spouse a reason to fear this reaction from you or not, show understanding by realizing trust is essential for one to open up their heart. Then think of ways to let your spouse know you can be trusted. For example, when your spouse opens up and reveals something you weren’t expecting, you might be inclined to react in a way that makes your spouse feel threatened. But if you let your spouse know that whatever they say will be heard and understood, not debated or discounted, then your spouse may feel safe enough to open up and talk.
You can make sure your “safe place” for your spouse is really safe by committing yourself not to react or even verbally respond until they have talked. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (NIV). And James 1:19 tells us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Try giving yourself a certain amount of time to process what your spouse says before responding. The important thing is getting them to talk, not you getting your chance to respond. Focus on their opportunity and willingness to talk and what you can do to make them feel safe so that once they open up their mouth and heart, they won’t regret it.
3. Listen With a Heart to Hear
Sometimes we want others to talk so we can say what we feel we need to in response. The danger in this is forming a habit of listening in order to determine what we are going to say next. When we do this, we stop listening because we’re formulating our response. Don’t do that. Your spouse will know you aren’t really listening; you are hearing in order to plan your defense or your strategy to repair. Your spouse may simply need you to listen – silently, lovingly, and without an agenda.
To let your spouse know you are listening, practice eye contact, nod, and give positive non-verbal feedback by remaining quiet and compassionate. If your spouse’s words trigger you emotionally in some way, breathe. Count to ten. And choose your response wisely, if at all. It could be that the wisest response at the moment is: “It took you some time to finally say this. I will need some time to eventually respond.” That’s fair. And it may prevent you from becoming reactive or defensive and saying something impulsively, which will only make your spouse refuse to open up again the next time you want them to talk.
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4. Consider that You Both Have Wounds that May Surface During a Conversation
Everyone on planet earth is broken. It is only the grace of God that can repair us, remake us, and restore us into a new creation that is whole and complete in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). With that in mind, realize there is often a deeper core wound that is driving a problem, argument, misunderstanding, or frustration in your marriage. That core wound can also be causing your spouse to go silent. In addition, the core wound can belong to you, your spouse, or both of you.
Instead of thinking, My spouse is just angry and doesn’t want to talk, or My spouse doesn’t care enough about our marriage to communicate with me, focus on something like: I had no idea that my spouse struggled so much with finding the right words to say at a time like this. That can generate compassion and understanding on your part, rather than accusation and annoyance. It can also help your spouse – or yourself – recover from a wound that is keeping communication from happening.
Many times we draw inaccurate conclusions during a spouse’s silence. And what we focus on grows. If you focus on what your spouse is doing wrong, that will grow. If you focus on the fact that your spouse is committed to the marriage like you are, just struggling with how to keep the peace, that will heighten your awareness to see that. When you give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, it shows, and that may cause your husband or wife to trust you enough to open up and talk.
5. Reject the Lies that Create Division Between the Two of You
Again, your spouse’s wounds aren’t the only ones in the picture. You can get emotionally triggered by a situation or by certain words from your spouse and then start believing a lie: I am alone. I am devalued. I’m not appreciated. I’m not respected. Combat those lies by realizing they aren’t coming from your spouse but rather from your own insecurities or from the enemy of your soul (Satan, not your spouse), who knows how to prey on your insecurities and weaknesses and get you to be combative.
You can best reject the lies from your insecurities and Satan by receiving the truth of who you are in Christ: loved, cherished, and bought with a price (Ephesians 1; 1 Corinthians 6:20). Once you receive the truth about your identity in Christ, you can be more emotionally regulated and attuned to your spouse and what they are feeling or trying to say. John 8:32 tells us, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
6. Reframe Your Words Lovingly
No one wants to hear the words, “You have a problem communicating” or “It appears that you aren’t as invested in the marriage as I am because you don’t seem to want to talk about issues.” Keep in mind if you don’t want to hear things said a certain way, your spouse doesn’t either. What would cause you to close up may be causing them to close up.
Sometimes our spouses close up because we invite them to talk with words that instantly put them on the defensive or make them want to avoid conversation altogether. (Did you know that starting a sentence with “Why” immediately puts a person on the defensive?) Speak to your spouse in a complementary manner, rather than a negative one. And make sure you watch your body language. (My husband does NOT like when I say something to him with my hands on my hips. For me, it’s just a comfortable way to stand. To him, it says I’m taking control of a situation and getting ready to make an accusation.)
We can get in the habit of framing our words well when we practice Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (NLT). Next time something is on the tip of your tongue, stop. Ask yourself, “Will this build up or tear down my spouse?” Then consider how can you can reframe your words in a way that encourages your spouse and invites a loving response.
For more on improving communication with your spouse, see Cindi’s books, When Couples Walk Together, and 12 Ways to Experience More with Your Husband.
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Cindi McMenamin is a national speaker, Bible teacher, and award-winning writer who helps women and couples strengthen their relationship with God and others. She is also a mother, pastor’s wife, and author of 17 books, including When Women Walk Alone (more than 150,000 copies sold), When God Sees Your Tears, When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts, and When Couples Walk Together:31 Days to a Closer Connection, which she co-authored with her husband of 35 years. For more on her speaking ministry, coaching services for writers, and books to strengthen your soul, marriage, and parenting, see her website: www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.