I’ve had the honor of working with many couples over the past several years, and although the stories are unique, the issues usually aren’t. Typically there’s a breach of trust that makes loving and respecting each other difficult, if not impossible. The breach may be obvious such as infidelity or abuse, but more often it’s born from a disconnect driven by small resentments that can take years to form.
Resentment usually shows up in bad communication. Many couples come in reporting poor communication, which is true of most of us in my opinion. Communicating well is tough because every word we say gets filtered through expectations, past relationships, and a gauntlet of insecurities that typically pre-date our spouses. Feeling constantly misunderstood, not heard, or disregarded will cause resentment that over time makes one or both spouses withdraw. It’s never intended, but it happens. We wonder where our emotionally available, talkative spouse went. They retreated to a place that feels more safe.
Helping spouses open back up requires becoming that safe space that they used to know. Below are some tips to help.
How to Get Your Spouse to Open Up
Recognize who they are
It’s important to reflect on who your spouse is, and to release the expectation that you’re wired the same way. Some people are inherently not expressive, and the pressure to be so can make them withdraw even more. Others may have been raised to repress feelings, which makes talking about them feel tortuous. Their silence may not necessarily be personal.
Showing empathy and compassion about how uncomfortable opening up can be may help lower their guard. Any spouse will appreciate an ounce of compassion and being appreciated for who they are.
Be a good listener
With the above said, spouses still need to grow in the habit of sharing and can’t neglect communication because they’re uncomfortable. Helping our quieter spouses find their voice requires the other party to be a good listener. This seems simple, but we all know it’s not. All too often we listen for a moment then launch in to fixing, comparing, defending, or worse, judging and invalidating. The role of listener is to listen. Everyone seeks to be understood. If there’s more involved, ask first what they need: an ear, to vent, or feedback. This is the single most important thing we can do to create a sense of safety needed for our spouses to open up.
Have situational awareness
Timing is everything. Not all discussions have to happen the minute we feel like they should. This is especially true if the topic is emotionally charged. I always encourage clients to “read the room”, and consider their spouse’s mood, how the day went, the stress level in the room, etc. before adding another log on the fire.
Working on better timing pays dividends because it also allows opportunity for the emotions to bleed off and for objectivity to catch up. Greater objectivity is never a bad idea because it makes us more level headed and equipped to keep the conversation respectful.
This may feel very one-sided, and for awhile it might be until the closed-off spouse decides that it’s safe enough to open up again. In the meanwhile, the other spouse is modeling what a supportive and emotionally safe partner looks like in hopes that it will be reciprocated. These steps are the backbone to effective communication. It’s not about the words, per se, as it is about reducing the risk of letting someone else in. If that can be accomplished, then it’s likely that spouses will open up again.
If you’re stuck in a closed-off relationship and don’t know how to make progress, we’re here to help. You can call Crossroads to speak with Cheryl or another counselor at 225-341-4147.