It’s a familiar and unfortunate dynamic I often see in couples counseling. One person is desperately trying to engage their partner to communicate and the other shuts down and won’t talk. It’s an obvious stalemate and no relationship can successfully endure this pattern for long. Why does my partner do this? How can I get my partner to talk? Those are the two leading questions I’m asked about communication in relationships.
Why Does My Partner Refuse to Talk?
There are several reasons why someone refuses to communicate in a relationship, and these are the leading causes.
Your partner is emotionally immature and doesn’t have good communication skills.
Perhaps your partner grew up in a home where people didn’t talk about problems and didn’t resolve issues. Or they may have been criticized when they tried to speak up and learned at a young age to internalize their feelings and thoughts. They may also have grown up in a chaotic home where there was a lot of conflict, so they came to associate communication with negativity. In any case, people who grow up in these types of settings rarely learn how to communicate effectively and develop a style of avoidance. They must learn to communicate and gather the necessary skills as an adult and essentially develop a new language.
Your partner becomes emotionally flooded.
Sometimes a person has the necessary communication skills but becomes “emotionally flooded.” This leads to a type of shut down where feelings and needs can’t be immediately identified and articulated. Essentially, the limbic system in the brain is activated and limits executive functioning.
In this case, time and space are needed for the limbic system to settle, which gives the person the ability to accurately identify and communicate what they’re feeling and wanting. The best tool for this scenario is a time-out. If the person who becomes flooded can learn to ask for a time-out when they become flooded and then return to the conversation when they’re able to engage, a lot of misunderstanding and disagreement can be avoided.
Your partner is manipulative.
Unfortunately, some people use the silent treatment as a means of control or punishment. They attempt to hurt their partner, influence behavior and leverage positioning by refusing to communicate. This is the worst-case scenario, and I don’t recommend participating in relationship with people who use this tactic. It’s not only disrespectful, but it’s also a form of emotional abuse and screams red flags.
What Can I Do to Improve Communication in My Relationship?
If you have a partner who struggles to communicate, there are a variety of things you can do to help the situation.
Model good communication and express your needs.
Model the type of communication you would like to receive. Don’t fall prey to your frustration and resort to blaming or criticizing. Articulate what you feel and what you want and avoid pointing out what your partner doesn’t do.
Go to couples therapy.
Couples therapy is a platform that can focus specifically on patterns of communication. A good therapist won’t focus on the content of your disagreements but will address the method and style in which you communicate. The therapist should be direct about their observations but create an atmosphere where both parties feel comfortable and not blamed.
Read books and research online.
If therapy isn’t the preferred method, many good resources are available online. There are countless books and online articles discussing healthy communication. It would be a great place to start and can be done as a couple.
What if My Partner Doesn’t Change?
If your partner doesn’t change after you’ve put real effort into changing the communication style, I don’t suggest continued efforts trying to change them because it’s usually a futile effort. At this point it’s important to look at your own needs and choices. If there’s a pattern and history of your partner not meeting your needs, then you owe it to yourself to put yourself in a position so your needs can be met by someone else.
So often a person won’t get out of a relationship because they feel their partner “has potential” or they are “in love.” Look closely and ask yourself whether you’re in love with the reality of the relationship and person or the potential. One is real and the other is most likely fantasy. It’s hard, but at this point the only real influence you have is over yourself and not your partner who has demonstrated behaviorally they aren’t willing to change. Loss is hard but it opens the door to new life and love.