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We all know that open communication is the cornerstone and foundation to all relationships, but what do you do when the person you are having issues with refuses to communicate? My spouse hates discussing problems or addressing any criticism I may have on his part. I have tried to address problems in delicate and subtle ways, but we can never seem to have a serious conversation that leads to any resolution. Any advice?


You are correct that open communication is essential in all healthy relationships, and when that breaks down, the fabric of the relationship begins to tear. 


When struggling in dealing with the behavior of someone we’re in a relationship with, the first question we need to ask is: “what is the function of that behavior?”

We believe that every behavior has a function and it’s important we understand what’s motivating the person to engage in it. While a person’s reasons or motivation might not be coming from a healthy place, it’s essential that we understand it if we hope to address it.  That is something you can try to think about on your own, or perhaps even ask him directly with the intent of understanding. What do you think he would say if asked: “why do you think we have difficulty communicating?” Can you be open to listen to his answer without first judging it?


You might not like the answer he gives. In fact, it might not even be a fair answer, but nonetheless, understanding it is the first step in trying to improve things between the two of you. As an example, we all know that children will often engage in negative behavior just to gain attention from parents or peers. While it might backfire and lead to consequences, as John Bradshaw famously said, “a thirsty child will drink muddy water.” While we might be capable of managing or stopping those particular actions, we can be sure that additional ones will replace them soon after until the purpose behind them is recognized and addressed. Every behavior has its cause, and it’s our job to understand what purpose it serves if we wish to change it. 


If in fact, he’s not willing to give you any information on the topic and is completely shut down, I think it’s important for you to convey to him the effect that this has on you. I would suggest expressing your hurt or pain in writing through an email or a letter. This way, he will have time to read it on his own before responding. Perhaps in the moment he feels pressured or judged and doesn’t realize the impact his lack of communicating has on you.


Unfortunately, there are times in a marriage when it seems one partner is acting completely selfishly or unfairly and it puts the other one in the tough position. But I believe that even then, it’s is still possible to facilitate change. It might require that we step out of the built in habits we have formed with our partners over the years and be willing to look at it through a different lens. 


You mentioned that despite multiple efforts, communication breaks down shortly after starting a discussion. I would suggest that the next time you have a discussion with your husband, mentally track down the exact point that you think the discussion starts veering off in a negative direction and make note of what directly preceded it. This may help you gain some perspective on what the trigger is for him and how to best go about addressing it in future attempts. Even if he is willing to take one small step towards change its important that he knows that it will not go unnoticed. It will be vital that you recognize the first step he makes towards change and express your gratitude when you see it. And once he is able to take one step and it is positively reinforced, it will become much easier to continue moving forward.  


I would also suggest that you mention to him (perhaps in that letter) that you are sure there are things that you are doing that he is unhappy with and that you would like to work on them to help strengthen the relationship. If he sees that the goal is not to criticize or “fix” him, but rather to help build closeness and that you are willing to participate in that process, it makes it less threatening or demeaning and much more collaborative.  I hope this helps. Please let me know how things progress.


Alexander Rand LCSW-R CASAC is a licensed clinical social worker and addictions therapist. He currently maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, NY and serves as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. He can be reached at srcsw@yahoo.com or at 917-880-9576


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