My husband is someone who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings and it’s really frustrating when we’re trying to resolve a disagreement. I’ll tell him how I feel and then ask him how he feels, but he just clams up or gets defensive so nothing ever gets resolved. I don’t know how to communicate with him or deal with this anymore!
I can feel the frustration in your question. It’s difficult when we feel as if we’re approaching a challenging conversation with our spouse in the “right” way but don’t get much back in return. At least nothing that helps to clarify the matter or move beyond it.
There are a few possible explanations for the way your husband tends to communicate (or not communicate), and I’d like you to consider each one separately before deciding how you’d like to do things differently.
That’s right: I said YOU! – – because the reality is that you may not be able to change your husband. You can only change yourself.
The great news is that you have the ability to change this dynamic by changing yourself, so let’s talk about a few things you can try that may encourage him to open up.
Keep in mind the innate differences between men and women, chief among them the fact that most women are more verbally inclined than most men. (I say “most” because I’m painting with a broad brush here, but while this is a generalization, it appears to apply in your case).
Girls appear to read and master words and language sooner and more quickly than boys and use more words to facilitate communication. In contrast, boys develop gross motor and spatial skills more quickly.
This is not to say that they can’t and don’t catch up with one at some later point, but it does shed light on what comes naturally and more easily to men and women.
Another revelation that has come to light, thanks to neuroscience in the modern age, is that there is a biological foundation for the tendency of men to focus on just one thing at a time, while women are better able to multitask and do numerous things simultaneously (including talk). The more “noise” is going on around you during these discussions (like the phone ringing, the kids running around, the television on in the background), the more difficult it will be for your husband to engage – and remain engaged.
What this all means is that your husband may not lean toward speaking his feelings out loud, particularly in a heated situation where he feels pressure to “get it right”.
You mention that you usually go first and express your feelings and then give him space to do the same. While that sounds great on the surface, the fact that he’s probably trying to take it all in before he’s given the opportunity to speak means that he may need more time to process what you’ve said before responding.
Tip 1: Speak in smaller chunks. Many times, we women don’t realize how many words we’re throwing out there. Speak in segments of 3-5 sentences and then give your husband the chance to respond.
Tip 2: Give him time and space to think about what you’ve said before expecting him to engage in further discussion. State your piece calmly and respectful and then say, “I know you might need time to think about it, so we can talk about it again when you’re ready.”
Tip 3: Use other ways of communicating to work out your differences. Instead of always initiating a verbal discussion, try writing your husband a note or email instead and invite him to respond in kind. See if he communicates more freely this way.
To make your husband feel heard and understood when he DOES
choose to share, check out our blog on The Power of the Paraphrase.
Despite our society’s focus on gender equality, most people would readily agree that boys and men still receive different messages than girls and women do when it comes to expressing feelings.
Just think about the messages – spoken or unspoken –we often send to very young boys:
- “Brush it off. It’s not that bad.”
- “Tough it out and keep going.”
- “You’re okay. Get up.”
- “Boys don’t cry. Be a big boy now.”
- “Suck it up and drive on.”
It’s common for boys to develop into manhood with a belief that being strong and masculine means pushing hurtful feelings aside and that these kinds of emotions are only for girls (a.k.a., “crybabies”).
Adding insult to injury are the inevitable traumas of childhood. Falling off the monkey bars at school and becoming the brunt of cruel teasing as a boy can leave lasting scars well into adulthood. This sends the message much more loudly than words ever could.
Even after childhood, your husband may have had various male role models—in real life and in fiction—who demonstrated that his job was to “keep a stiff upper lip” and leave crying to the girls.
Think about some of our traditional role models in film; people like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood who are the “strong and silent” type.
Sending the message that feeling hurt makes men weak and unmanly is completely unfair to them. It’s also very frustrating to women, who may unconsciously believe this lie as well but want their men to be more talkative, more open, and more like their girlfriends.
I don’t mean to be preachy, but it bears repeating because sometimes this gets lost in the shuffle: men are not going to be like women because they’re NOT women (thank goodness)!
This doesn’t mean your husband can’t or won’t share his feelings with you. However, it may take a different approach, with a dose of patience and understanding, for him to begin communicating more openly with you, particularly in the midst of conflict.
Tip 4: Start encouraging his sharing on low-risk topics whenever he does share his thoughts or feelings, even about something completely innocuous such as what happened that day at work. Say, “I just love it when you tell me about your day and all the juicy details. I miss you all day, so it makes me feel a little bit more like I was there with you.”
Tip 5: Send more direct messages about your view of him when he’s “down.” Say, “Nothing you can say will ever make me think less of you. You’ll always be my man.” During conflict, acknowledge his possible feelings and then let him correct you if you’re wrong. Say, “I realize what I just said might be hurtful to you and I didn’t intend for this to happen. I’d like to hear whatever you’d like to share.”
To learn more about ways in which men and women tend to communicate differently,
check out this article on 6 Ways Men and Women Communicate Differently.
Think for a moment about how men tend to communicate and “bond” with each other.
In contrast to women, who sit face to face, look into one another’s eyes, and share intimate details in order to feel closer, men will often participate in a joint activity (e.g., shooting hoops, going fishing, playing a video game) that involves looking at a third object – not at each other.
Studies have shown that intense eye contact—such as the type of eye contact that is probably going on between you and your husband during an argument—can feel uncomfortable and unduly threatening to men.
Even the way women sometimes approach these types of discussions can be off-putting to men and set things up for failure. Starting with “Let’s sit down and talk” or “Tell me how you feel” can put them on the defensive and make them feel as if they’re about to be attacked.
At the same time, men tend to communicate very directly, and may not pick up on hints you drop to try to influence their behavior. Be direct. If an issue needs to be resolved, say so and clearly state what you need from him.
For example, say, “This is important to me. I feel like we need to pay off the credit card this month but I need your help to make sure we can do it and want to understand how you feel about this.”
Then be quiet and listen without jumping to conclusions (or jumping in with more).
Tip 6: If you know you need to have a hard discussion with your man, take him out and initiate the topic during one of these “third-object”-type activities. Take a walk or stage a putt-putt contest and raise the issue casually. See if he’s more able to communicate his thoughts while you’re participating in an activity together. Remember that he’s more likely to use words like, “I think” rather than “I feel”. Don’t force him to speak your language.
Tip 7: Even if you’re alone at home during one of these conversations, consider your timing carefully. Study his body language, and if he is tense or moody, refrain from bringing it up. When you do raise it, make it a point to look away now and then or even face away from him so he gets a break from your intensity. Instead of expecting him to respond immediately, tell him you just wanted to say your piece and he can get back to you when he’s ready. Then move on to the next thing, refuse to sulk, and act like you’ll be fine no matter when he gets back to you or what he says when he does.
Did you know we are experts at couples communication? We’ve helped countless couples
resolve their communication issues and get on the same wavelength. We’d love to help you too!
Response and Recovery
Being able to look honestly at yourself, the way you respond to your husband, and what may cause him to clam up is an important aspect of this process.
Could it be that he feels you become harsh or critical during your disagreements? That you interrupt him constantly when he does begin to speak? That you have a “reason” for everything he has a grievance about?
If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes”, this could explain why your husband doesn’t choose to communicate. In this case, it will take time—and efforts from you—to change the pattern.
Go to him proactively in a quiet, calm moment, apologize for your past behavior, and tell him you’ve realized how your own bad behavior may have impacted his response to you. State your intent to do better and your willingness to change because his thoughts and feelings are valuable to you and you’d like to hear more of them.
Ask him how you can improve and then just . . . LISTEN. Once he’s finished, thank him for sharing and leave it at that.
As I’ve said, men are more likely to demonstrate their feelings through actions rather than words. He might take your hand while you’re sharing your feelings as a sign of support or buy you flowers because you’re sad. Perhaps he fixes and does things around the house without being asked.
Tip 8: Whatever it is that your man does to show you he cares, make sure you recognize and reward him with positive words and actions in return. Remember: what gets rewarded gets repeated!
Tip 9: When he does share something sensitive or painful for him, choose to act instead of speaking and honor the way he wants to be heard and comforted by you. Just put your hand on his arm or give him a hug. Don’t always feel as if you need to fill the silence. He may appreciate the silence and this may encourage him to speak up more readily in the future.
In closing, every relationship is as unique as the two people in it, but if you’re committed to growing as a couple, you’ll find a way forward that helps you BOTH feel heard, understood, and loved.