How to Get Your Partner to Open Up
Even if they’re conflict-avoidant or giving you the silent treatment
Posted March 22, 2016
If your spouse or partner avoids difficult conversations, you might find yourself waiting indefinitely for that heart-to-heart talk that will clear the air.
Maybe you feel powerless; it seems like you have no choice but to wait for the other person to talk. Clearly, they don’t want to go there. So what do you do?
It’s important to realize that the silent treatment (as opposed to longer-term estrangement, which also includes physical distance) always requires two people, not just one. As much as they’re not talking to you, you’re also holding your tongue while you wait for them to come around.
Don’t be lulled into thinking they’re making the rules and you’re just following them. It’s not that one-sided. They might have started it, but now you’re cooperating in maintaining the silence between you.
You can break the silence if you want to. You don’t have to honor the same rules they’re playing by. Make your own rules, and play by those.
Here are some practical tips for confronting people who hate confrontation, and getting them to open up:
1. Don’t text. Texting is for quick, neutral, logistical or light-hearted communication. Never, never, never text about something that should be discussed in real time. Call or speak face to face whenever possible.
2. Talk about your own experience. Don’t say, “I realize you’re mad at me right now.” That makes an assumption about what they’re feeling and puts them on the defensive.
Keep your comments in your own yard. Talk about you. Take ownership and responsibility for your feelings, thoughts and needs. E.g., “I’m feeling awkward and anxious right now; I really want to talk to you about ______, but I’m afraid.”
Talking in “I” statements does two things:
A. It makes you the one who’s vulnerable, so they don’t have to get defensive, and
B. It models the way you'd like them to communicate.
3. Never ask for something you’re unwilling to give.
Be the change you wish to see in the relationship. Give, before you take. Do it first, and let them follow your lead.
Not sure what to say? Here are some sample openers for approaching the conflict-avoidant person:
“I feel nervous approaching you about this because I’m not sure how you feel about it, but there’s something I really want to talk about.”
“This is awkward for me, but I really want to talk to you about something. Do you have a few minutes?”
If the answer is no, then, “When would be a good time?”
(You can reasonably expect your partner to make time to talk with you. See my previous post on expectations it’s good to have in relationships.)
“I’m having a hard time with what happened the other day, and I just wanted to run my thoughts by you and hear what you think.”
If they’re truly conflict-avoidant, that’s to your advantage. They’re going to have a hard time saying no to your request for a conversation.
If you leave a message for a conflict-avoidant friend and they don’t get back to you, which is typical of the truly conflict avoidant, call again and leave another message.
Keep it short, calm and simple. Example:
“Hi, I left you a message on Thursday but haven’t heard back from you. I’d really like to talk. Please call me back.”
“Hi, I've left you a couple of messages but thought I’d give it another try. I miss you and I’d really love to talk. Please call me back.”
4. Make it as painless for them as possible.
Put your money where your mouth is. Demonstrate to them that you want to talk, not interrogate them. Do for them what you’d like them to do for you: Share your true thoughts and feelings, taking responsibility for your part in the situation.
Search your heart and name your own feelings and needs before expecting them to do that. When you finally get them alone and voice to voice or, better yet, face to face, use the opportunity to share your vulnerable self with them.
“I’ve been feeling awful ever since we had that argument at the movie theater. I felt miserable both during and after, and I’m afraid my misery made me come across as rude. Now I’m worried that our relationship is damaged. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and hoping we can get back to the way things were.”
If you value the relationship, don’t hesitate to say so:
“Our relationship is important to me. I want to feel close to you again, and so I need to be honest about my experience with this.”
Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to destroy relationships. Well-handled conflict will strengthen your bond, not ruin it.
By bringing courage and intentionality to your own communication, you can create the change you’ve been waiting for.