Here is March’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My husband refuses to communicate. He walks away in the middle of an argument and goes into his study. He won’t talk about things later, either! How do I get him to realize that he has to communicate if we ever want to fix our issues?
I’m sorry you’re struggling with this. SR&A associate, Brett Ford, PsyD, works with couples and has some great advice.
She writes: What you shared is a pretty typical communication breakdown between a man and a woman. A lot of women feel anxiety when an argument isn’t resolved in the moment through direct communication. Many men, on the other hand, describe the need to shut down during an argument so that things don’t get worse. With opposite communication styles, it’s hard for either partner to feel heard or cared about.
The important thing to remember is these are just different communication styles. It might seem like you’re the one communicating and your husband simply isn’t at all, but it’s helpful to understand that some people, especially men, need space to sort things out. “Pursuers” feel the best way to get through an argument is to discuss the issues, until a resolution has been reached. “Withdrawers,” on the other hand, feel as though having an argument is like walking across a minefield. Rather than risk having an even bigger argument and making things worse, withdrawers feel safer retreating from the conversation. (And yes–we see plenty of couples where the man is the pursuer and the woman is the withdrawer.)
I suggest you find ways to soothe yourself during an argument, rather than continuing to pursue a resolution. Take a time-out from the conflict, focus your energy on yourself, and try to decompress a little. Go for a jog or hit the gym. Take a bath. Read a book on the porch. Make a cup of tea. When you turn your attention to yourself, your anxiety will calm down. Your thoughts will stop racing, your anger will subside, and your body will relax. You deserve to feel better in the moment, and taking that time is a necessary act of kindness toward yourself. Eventually, your husband will feel comfortable tackling the tough issues when he sees that things can be discussed calmly later.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, right!” Maybe this feels like giving up, or agreeing to let the issues go. Try to get in touch with your anxiety in the moment. I’m sure your anxious thoughts will tell you something like, “If we don’t talk this through, we’ll never get the issue resolved,” or, “If he doesn’t understand that I need him to change, I can’t stay in this marriage!” Your anxiety tells you this needs to get better, NOW. That’s totally understandable. Your needs and values matter, and it is important that you work through the big issues troubling your relationship.
The problem is these issues won’t get better if the way you both communicate doesn’t change. You’ve likely been a “pursuer” for a long time, and it’s just as likely that your husband has always felt more comfortable “withdrawing” from arguments. We can’t change the way our partner needs to communicate, but we can change the way we create safety for one another’s different communication styles. Taking some time for yourself during an argument gives your husband the space and silence he needs to process and soothe his fear that things will get worse. Revisiting the conversation later, when everyone is calmer, will give you the connection you need to feel better about resolving the issues.
I’m glad you reached out. For more ideas on how to decompress and practice self-care, check out this list from Psychology Today.
Best of luck, Brett (and Shelby)
Learn more about all of SR&A’s therapists here.
To schedule a session, contact our intake coordinator, Rebecca Freking.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC, a group family therapy practice in Chester Springs. She is the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families. And check out her books on Amazon.