Asking for a Friend//

How to Fix a Communication Breakdown With Your Spouse

A therapist who has overcome the issue in her own marriage on how to start talking to each other again.

weerapatkiatdumrong / Getty Images
weerapatkiatdumrong / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

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Q:

My husband and I are having communication issues. The main problem is he doesn’t converse with me! Everywhere I read and hear that human connection and bonding is important. He responds “uh huh” to most of my “bids” and I am at a loss as to what to do. I’ve tried talking to him about it, but he gets very defensive. Just last night, he said that he talks this way because he’s an engineer. Then he proclaimed that I made him feel like crap by telling him how I feel. What do I do? —O.R.


A:

Without frequent conversation, you may wonder, “Is he really there for me?”  

Unfortunately, when you communicate these feelings, your partner may feel attacked and get defensive. Sometimes a fight ensues, leaving both partners sad and lonely.  

Not only do I know this to be true as a therapist, but also from my 31-year marriage to an engineer! We had to find a shared rhythm for a good conversation, like everything else that builds a strong bond. I help my clients do the same.

Create a new vibe for communication by sharing your vulnerable feelings first instead of focusing on him. Start by gently confiding with an “I” statement, like, “I’ve been feeling lonely,” or “I’ve been missing you.“ This works better than a harsher “you” statement, like, “You never want to talk,” or, “You don’t care what I have to say.”  

My husband has some wisdom for you, too, so I’ve asked him to chime in. Here’s what he says:

"Actually engineers can have very good communication skills. It’s really about differences in style. Some people process ideas internally with fewer words. Others like to get it all out with numerous words. What does a good conversation feel like to your husband? If you expect him to dialogue only in your style, he might get overwhelmed with many ideas coming at him all at once. Slow down, use fewer words, even stop sometimes and wait for him to formulate his response."

Thanks, honey! I couldn’t agree more.

In the Gottman Relationship Guide, Seven Weeks for Creating Fondness and Admiration, simple exercises remind you to look at the specifics that you cherish about your partner.  Rediscover what gives life to your relationship. You may have weathered some storms together, and strong attraction went both ways.

Your husband probably has many qualities you admire. Perhaps you enjoy his sense of humor or are proud of his accomplishments. As you focus on what’s truly desirable about your spouse, you’ll tap into a great source of energy — your own love and appreciation! Even though you long for more (and rightly so) that very longing is a sign that there is something good here. So let him in on it and share what you appreciate. It will go a long way toward helping you both feel more connected.  

Realize he’s probably lonely, too. Get curious to learn what he feels and what would meet his needs. It’s possible that he wishes for both physical and emotional intimacy. Don’t give up on him! Conversing is not the only way to bond. Find small ways each day to meet both of your needs. Long, warm hugs, six-second kisses, working side by side, and sex are all proven to stimulate attachment.

When you need to discuss a larger concern, check with him to see if it’s a good time to talk about the topic. Exchange ideas one at a time — back and forth. Even though you may see multiple connections, don’t expand all your thoughts at once as if “dumping” the contents of your brain into his. Let him reflect, each step of the way, on what he hears you saying, and give him time to offer his own thoughts. You’ll feel better as he reassures you that he’s listening, and you can encourage him to share his views too.

Validate his perspective. Yes, you are wired differently, so you will likely see many things differently as well. Consider it a gift to have this additional lens through which to view the world, understanding that your differences are a strength in your partnership and not a flaw.   

Listening is the greater part of healthy communication, and my partner and I both endeavored to become skilled listeners. Even as a Certified Gottman Therapist with years of experience, I got a great boost from attending The Art and Science of Love couples workshop. At one time, we even worked with our own Gottman therapist to provide a supportive framework. Every effort was worth it!

I wish you and your husband well and encourage you to share feelings using “I” statements, accept and embrace your differences, and find your own rhythms for connection in many small ways throughout the day.    

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