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What to Do When a Partner Stops Communicating

1. Don't take it personally (yet).

Key points

  • For some people, talking, even casually, can stir up a fear that we will get too close and lose our sense of who we are as separate people.
  • We shut down to protect a relationship, but not talking can backfire and make intimacy harder.
  • Pushing a partner to talk can also make intimacy more difficult.

“He’s the most wonderful, kind, and friendly person you can imagine,” Nancy* said to me as her husband Hank* sat silently beside her in couples therapy. “I’m the only person he doesn’t talk to.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know why. I just don’t want to talk.”

“What is it about me that makes it so hard for you to talk to me?” Nancy demanded. Hank shrugged. “See?” Nancy said. “He clams up and won’t tell me what he’s thinking about. I know he’s angry with me.”

It’s hard for a therapist not to get caught up in that kind of statement. Was Hank angry with Nancy? If so, why wouldn’t he talk about it? I knew from experience that, although these were important questions, they were not the first ones we needed to answer.

Aaron* and Mike* were also having trouble communicating. After dating for nearly a year, Mike asked Aaron to move in with him.

“He says he’s not ready,” Mike said. “But he won’t talk about why. Maybe he’s trying to let me know that he doesn’t love me or doesn’t want to live together. I wish he’d just come out and say it.”

Not talking can represent unconscious conflicts about intimacy. It’s often hard to believe that someone we love and care about has anxiety about being close to us or that we have anxiety about being close to them. But many of us struggle on a deep, unconscious level with such conflicts.

On the one hand, we long for deep connection, a bond in which we feel deeply recognized, understood, and cared about. On the other hand, we fear that such a bond will somehow destroy our independence, maybe even our identity. For some people, talking, even casually, can stir up a fear that we will get too close and lose our sense of who we are as separate people.

 atic12/123rf image
Source: atic12/123rf image

When we’re not juggling intimacy and independence, for instance, with work buddies, our communications are much less confusing. But it can be much harder to find a good balance between what developmental theorists call “attachment and individuation” with people we care deeply about.

So, like an acrobat on a tightwire, we lean first to one side, then to the other, to try to keep our balance. We get close, and then we pull away.

When things are going well for a couple, simple conversations can help both partners keep the balance between closeness and independence. But these conversations require hard work.

Two basic rules can help.

Don’t Take It Personally

Instead of assuming that your partner is not talking to you because of something you’ve done or not done, recognize that they might be having trouble because of their own psychological and emotional conflicts about closeness. They may fear that they’ll become too dependent on you, so they keep a distance by not talking. Or, they may worry that you won’t like something they say and will push them away. Either way, keeping quiet is an unconscious attempt to stay balanced.

That’s what happened with both couples I described earlier.

Nancy believed that Hank didn’t love her anymore. It was hard for her not to frame his behavior in any other way because, as she said, “I’m the one you’re doing it to. The only one.”

He played with their children, talked to them, and told them stories, but he stopped talking if she asked a question or tried to participate.

I encouraged her to try to think outside of that personal frame. I also urged Hank to try to find words to talk about what he was thinking.

After several sessions of therapy, Hank said, “I think I have trouble talking to you because we are so close. I want you to know things without me having to tell them to you. And when you don’t, I get irritated. But that’s not your fault. That’s on me.”

I also encouraged Aaron and Mike to recognize that their difficulties were not about negative or critical feelings about each other but their fears about intimacy. Mike said, “I’m pushing you to move in because I’m afraid I will lose you if I don’t stake my claim. But maybe that’s backfiring and pushing you away?”

Aaron said, “Hunh. I never thought about that. You know I’ve had bad experiences in relationships before. I really care about you, and I want us to work, and I’m afraid of going too fast. And maybe I’m afraid of getting hurt. So you’re not pushing me away, but I’ve been afraid to tell you that I need to go slowly because I’ve been worried you wouldn’t wait.”

Talk About the Small Stuff

Couples often think they need to talk about deep, serious things to be close. But it’s the small stuff that is the glue of a relationship. A shared joke, a couple of minutes of small talk about each other’s days, a complaint about sore feet or an aching back—these make up a relational home.

Couples don’t get into deeply meaningful conversations by simply jumping into the deep end of the emotional pool with one another. First, I encourage couples to talk to me about the small details of their daily lives so that I get to know them, both as individuals and as a couple, so they connect. Many couples think “small talk” is not important.

But, as I’ve written about before in my blog, the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan pointed out years ago that the core of who we are is contained in those small details. The more a couple communicates the so-called insignificant thoughts and moments of their lives, the more they know about one another. And the closer and more comfortable they can feel with each other.

Interestingly, these two rules: talk about the small stuff and don’t take things personally can bring a couple closer together and, at the same time, strengthen their independent selves. Which makes it much easier to talk about the big stuff when it comes up.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy

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