WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK TO EACH OTHER

There are alternatives to the stalemate.

In many couples, during conflict there is one who wants to settle things right away and one who needs time to “cool down”. Who gets their way? Well, in my work it is never about “who wins”, but instead what is best for the relationship of two people. That often requires both sides giving up a bit of what they want for the good of the whole. Easier said that done when emotions, and defenses, are high.

Traditionally, women are the pursuers in relationships and men are the withdrawers. Women often want to talk about how they feel, men prefer to solve problems. The difficulty with this is that those are two different conversations with completely opposite sets of rules, so no wonder problems get swept under the rug until the next blowup. (Hint: There is no such things as reality when you are talking about feelings. We feel what we feel despite what is or is not going on in the outside world.)

In this article I will share an alternative to the stalemate, a way around the impasse that is actually more–it is an approach that can bring couples closer even when in conflict. Because let’s face it–there are times when you should NOT talk to each other! Let’s talk a look at what is behind one person needing to talk, and the other not wanting to…

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE NEEDS TO TALK NOW: Generally when we talk it is because we have something we need to communicate to another. At times this need to communicate is more urgent, especially if we are communicating our response to a real or perceived threat. What is the purpose of communication under these circumstances? Mostly, when we need to talk urgently in response to a threat it is for the purpose of letting someone know that someone is not right. This is how we express healthy anger–we let someone know we are upset.

The problem is that most people don’t do this–what they do instead is attack the other or defend against them. Attack often includes criticism: a statement that includes a judgement and often a demand. This does work if your purpose is to push the other away or threaten them in return–but it does not work if we want them to care about why we are upset and respond to our concerns.

The latter requires that we refrain from attack and instead share our upsettalk about what is going on with us in the moment. Needing to talk right away signals that something is wrong to us and we need to let the other know what that is and how it makes us feel. But in order to do that successfully we have to trust that our vulnerability will be received with caring and curiosity–elements often in short supply even in loving relationships. We will explore what that looks like in the third section of this article, but let’s first examine when someone does not want to talk.

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE DOES NOT WANT TO TALK UNTIL LATER: You might be with a partner who “shuts down” when there is conflict between you. I notice in my practice that in many relationships there is one who wants to talk immediately and one who wants to wait until they have a chance to “process” their feelings. Who is right?

Both are! Every individual has their own way of responding to conflict, and this usually includes not just forming a response but also how to protect ourselves if we feel attacked. For those who need to talk about it immediately, this is their way to feel safe–they have to resolve it right away! For them, waiting is often torture and more painful than the original conflict. It triggers feelings of unimportance and insecurity.

For those who want to wait before talking, the goal is the same–to feel safe, but they do this by creating some distance from the conflict and the attack. For them, the conflict itself is the most painful event, often because it triggers feeling out of control, judged, and criticized–another way of feeling in danger. Time and space give these partners a chance to regulate their agitation and form their response without feeling as though they have a knife at their throats.

As an example, I used to suffer from hypo-arousal during conflict, and the result was that my physical body literally shut down–I couldn’t talk and would feel like I was in a state of partial paralysis. Whoever I was with didn’t know how to respond to this because it appeared as though I had just decided to leave my body. They were right! To continue the conversation would have required me to remain in a disregulated state–and that was too dangerous for me. A greater understanding of this state made a huge difference in my responses.

It is important to understand that just because someone does not want to talk right away, this does not mean that they don’t care about you!

HOW TO MEET IN THE MIDDLE SO BOTH BENEFIT: There is no true meeting in the middle, but there is a place where you hold onto what is important to you while leaning into what is important to your partner. Whether it is in the middle or not is irrelevant, that it happens is more important, because this is an example of what the Gottmans call “leaning into the relationship“, and it results in connection, trust, and security.

Since most couples consist of a partner who wants to talk right away and a partner who wants to process first, how do you lean into each other during conflict? Well, as I said earlier, you may have to wait no matter how badly you want to talk, because if one of you is dis-regulated then talking will likely not go well. However, this does not mean that the one who wants to talk has to suffer and wait. Here are some steps of what to do:

  1. If either of you are disregulated (either hyper or hypo-aroused, left brain shut down) then wait–the experts suggest 20-30 minutes to allow for regulation.
  2. Even in a state of dis-regulation, we have the ability to be respectful and give our partner a time when we will be available to talk or listen. Don’t leave the other hanging! Let them know when you can talk: “It sounds like you really want to talk about what happened. Please give me 20 minutes and then we can check in about discussing it.” You are allowed to revise your timeline, but a timeline must be given as it is respectful and caring for the one who is waiting (and respectful to the relationship!).
  3. When you come together to talk, decide who will be the talker and who will be the listener so that you aren’t competing for roles. You can switch later, but it is important that whoever is talking be given the opportunity to fully express themself. (Hint: The talker is usually the one who was upset in the first place.)
  4. Don’t reality test! This is one sure way to derail a productive talk since in the “land of feelings” there is no reality. We feel what we feel, whether it is what the other feels or not, and if we don’t get the “details” correct, well, that is not as important as hearing about the feelings that go with what happened. You don’t have to agree with what the other feels, but you do have to accept it as their perceptual truth! If you are the listener, focus on what the other is feeling and less so on the accuracy of any details. It is never about the details, and always about what they feel.
  5. Agree ahead of time to act as a team. Make an agreement that you both will stop if things are getting “out of hand”, and make sure that the agreement includes talking about it at a later time when you are both calmer. If you act as a team, you will treat the problem as the problem rather than your partner as the problem! Additionally, as individuals, it is crucial to practice self-regulation so that we don’t make our partner responsible for what we are feeling.

The main take-away it that sometimes in order to resolve conflict, we need to acknowledge the differences between us and our partner. Forcing them to do it “our way” will only increase the disconnection and push-away. Remember, it is not about winning, it is about caring, and the greatest form of caring is interest in your partner. In conflict, that sometimes means accepting that they cannot talk right now. But they will. And evidence of that over time will reduce the urgency to talk before both are ready, and make the conversations you eventually have more connective!

GET INTERESTED IN EACH OTHER!

What does it mean to be interested in someone? Well, it depends on who you are asking and when you are asking, but for this article I would like to focus on “interest” as it shows up in romantic relationships. While you might wonder why this topic needs to be addressed, I can assure you that interest, as we know it, is often not the type that builds safety and security between two (or more) people.

Remember falling in love? Remember how interested you were in the other person? How you found their every word and action utterly fascinating? If you have ever had that experience, then perhaps you also experienced the interest fading over time–perhaps you started to feel that the things you were most interested in at the beginning are now annoying!

What happened?

In order to understand what happened, it is best to understand what interest in another is, and what it is not.

WHAT IT IS NOT: That obsessive interest we have in another during the infatuation stage is not really interest in them, it is interest in how great we feel when we are with them. How could it be true interest in them? Many times, we know very little about the other during those first days and weeks. What we do know is that our bodies are charged and our focus intensified when we are with our new love–and that we don’t want it to end.

Another way of saying it is that during this time, we become re-interested in ourselves! New romance makes us feel attractive, desirable, smart, energized, and yes, interesting. Our time at the beginning is usually spent trying to maintain that way of feeling, and we reinforce it by showing curiosity about how the other is just like us. Rarely do we investigate our differences, and if they come up, our brains tend to “disregard” them as it has one goal in mind: to bond with the other.

WHAT IT IS: I want to state that there is nothing wrong with the process described above, as long as you know that this is what is going on! So what is interest then, and why is it essential to relationship health?

Interest is the highest form of caring, in my book. What does that mean? It means that the elements we usually associate with caring: love, sex, patience, compromise, etc., are actually frosting to the “Interest Cake”. In my work, interest is defined as being curious about who the other is and what goes on in their inner emotional world. In question form that would look like this: “Who are you?” “What are you feeling about what happened/what I did?”

Many people associate this type of interest with therapy, but I always say to my clients that the work I do is not a different language, just a way of talking that we don’t do with one another anymore, for some reason. Our culture over the years has become increasingly self-involved, resulting in less actual conversation and more reports being traded back and forth. People often come into therapy simply because they don’t feel cared for by others in their lives–a sad state indeed!

WHAT TO DO: The good news is that you can learn how to do this with people in your life, and they can learn to do it with you. The benefit of showing interest in the other is that it diffuses defensiveness and criticism, and creates connection rather than disconnection. Interest is the cornerstone of healthy conflict! What is healthy conflict? It is when someone is upset, expresses vulnerability by talking about what they are feeling about what happened, and then is responded to by the other with curiosity, interest, and caring. That creates empathetic connection, the base of a safe and secure relationship.

This can be hard to do. We have not been taught to have this level of interest in another, so this is why I teach couples to practice it in the room and at home. As I said, this is not doing therapy, it is showing interest and care (which, by the way, is what therapists do!). When practiced regularly, it can change the dynamic in your relationships, and also prevent the staleness that can happen in a long term coupling.

The truth is that we are always changing, both individually and relationally. Being curious about those changes in someone you care about can go a long way toward ensuring that your love continues to live and grow. All it takes is a little interest!