Yesterday, I shared a few strategies for
encouraging your husband to be a little more chatty. Today, a heavier topic: how to have an awful but necessary conversation.
N.B.: I don’t mean to give the impression that if women just follow some simple steps, then healing will magically occur in a deeply troubled marriage. On the other hand, it’s common for good relationships to go through times when pain outweighs the joy. But it’s also common to come out of the bad patches stronger and more united than you were when things were chugging along peacefully. So here are a few ideas for how to approach your un-talkative husband when there’s something wrong:
Don’t ambush him. If you’re upset about something, you’re likely to let it burst out in a moment which is already highly emotionally charged, and it won’t go well. You will get much better results if you give him warning that you need to discuss something difficult, and even set an appointment (or, better, ask him when he will be free to talk about it).
Decide ahead of time what you want to talk about, and stick to that. Even if you have other, perfectly legitimate complaints, it’s not helpful (or accurate) to give the impression that you think he’s a failure in every possible way. Put your complaint in this context: “You are so great about X, Y, and Z. But can we talk about Q?”
Make it safe for him to respond. Even if your husband fully understands that there’s a problem and wants to resolve it, it will be almost impossible for him to open his mouth if everything he says is met with screams of grief, immediate counterarguments, or ridicule. If you say you want to know what’s on his mind, but then get hysterical when you hear it, he will have no choice but to try to protect both of you by shutting up. Try with all your might to listen quietly, and make only encouraging responses. Later, you can tell him your side.
Don’t ask questions that you don’t need to know the answer to. Even if you’re burning with curiosity to know how his mind works, consider how it will affect your state of mind if you know the worst. Sometimes you will decide you gotta know; but sometimes you may admit that you can live without finding certain things out. Be honest with yourself about how strong you are right now—maybe this question can wait.
His eyes are up here. Don’t look into them. A face-to-face posture may foster honesty in women, but some men find it antagonistic. Know your husband’s preference. It may be easier to sit side-by-side; and it may help to hold hands, for that tactile reminder that you’re on the same side, even when you’re angry.
Be prepared to be wrong. Even if you’re the most victimized, wounded, injured party in the world, you’re not completely innocent—no one is. Own up to your contribution to the problem. You’re in this together.
Remember he hasn’t been living inside your head. You may be talking about a grievance that you’ve been stewing over for months, but to him, it’s new material. Maybe you’ve been rehearsing the conversation mentally, and already know how he ought to respond—but this doesn’t mean he’s privy to your script. Give your words time to sink in. Many men seem to brush off an idea the first time they hear it, only to come back two weeks later and say, “Okay, here is what I think.”
Don’t expect to get to the bottom of things in one session. If it’s a groundbreaking conversation, think of it as one in a series, and be patient. If it’s hard for your husband to talk, then it will be even harder for him to keep on talking; so be content that you’ve made a start, and be alert for the next suitable time to bring up the topic. If today’s conversation is over, it’s over.
Consider his family of origin. Was he mocked, chastized, or swatted down for expressing himself? That kind of training stays with a person. Make it clear to your husband that your house is not his childhood house, and be patient.
Pray for a fruitful conversation before you begin. I once overheard a priest praying quietly, “Help me say what You want me to say, and help them hear what You want them to hear.” He was preparing to give a sermon, but this seems like a very useful prayer for a conversation between spouses, too. The grace of the sacrament of marriage is real, but you have to keep asking God to top it off throughout your life together.