Marriage is supposed to be that one sacred place where you can be yourself and speak freely. But when you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, your relationship and home life can feel more like a prison.
It’s not uncommon for one or both spouses in a marriage to have difficulty being assertive in their communication with one another. Communicating our needs and desires doesn’t always come naturally even when we love someone.
Some people instinctively shy away from conflict and don’t want to trouble or inconvenience others — including a spouse. They would rather acquiesce than speak up.
While conflict avoidance is common in relationships, it is not a good strategy for a comfortable and satisfying relationship. And if and when you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, chances are there is something more telling going on.
The influence of one’s upbringing is profound on relationship behavior. How could it not be? We learn to speak by listening to our parents. We learn the safety (or lack thereof) of our emotions from our parents’ responses to them. We learn how to argue and resolve conflict (or not) by watching how our parents engage.
What makes people afraid to communicate?
Some people don’t bring up unpleasant topics or areas of disagreement because they think their spouse will get defensive, angry, or counter-attack. They’ve never had the experience of talking through a problem to peaceful resolution and fear the risk of a fight is too great or their partner will never understand their point of view anyway.
Other people desperately want to be themselves in their relationship, but suffer from insecurity about how well they’ll be received. They fear rejection, chastisement, or abandonment if they share their feelings, fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities.
Assuming that, when you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, you’re sheltering an I security or disquietude within yourself, there are ways to gain your voice and the courage to risk a negative reaction from your spouse.
Chances are if you are concerned about your marriage, your spouse is, too. You may have different priorities and needs, but it’s next to impossible to coexist — let alone intimately — without picking up on one another’s vibes.
If you take a pass when your relationship is calling on you to communicate your feelings and needs, rather than protecting your relationship, you are actually risking the health of your relationship by allowing another brick to be placed in in the wall between you.
While you may not want to “stir up trouble” or risk triggering your spouse’s ire, staying quiet sets up both of you and your marriage for failure.
By not communicating in an effective way you are asking your spouse to read your mind. And what happens if s/he doesn’t “read” you correctly? Is there hell to pay? Or perhaps a lengthy silent treatment spent stewing in resentment?
Mind-reading is an exhausting guessing game that leads to misunderstanding, chronic anger and contempt. When you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, but still expect specific behaviors, changes and results, you are being unrealistic when you hold them accountable for what you want but have not expressed.
What, then, can you do when you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, but want to express yourself within your marriage? Here are 7 tips to open up your thinking…and hopefully your communication.
1. Learn how to resolve conflict.
Avoiding conflict at any cost gets you nowhere because it means essential information isn’t being communicated.
And escalating a conflict to the point of unmanageability gets you nowhere and makes both of you walk on eggshells around and afraid to bring up sensitive topics.
Conflict in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – it is an inevitable part of relationships. If you grew up in a home where conflict always led to hurtful consequences and unresolved issues, you may not believe that.
But the process of working through conflict and its inherent tension, while at the same time maintaining a positive connection with your spouse, can be a profound learning experience. It can also deepen intimacy and mutual compassion — and strengthen your relationship.
2. Remember the things that are safe to say in a healthy relationship
When you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, the idea of negating or countering his/her opinions may seem insane. Say “no”? “I don’t like that”? “You’re wrong”? “I don’t want to”? Are you kidding?
Again, we’re talking about non-abusive relationships in which one or both spouses have personal issues about expressing themselves. In healthy relationships, partners share their feelings without fear. They even call one another out on “their stuff” and ask for help — both from one another and from support systems.
They feel safe saying “no” to requests that are uncomfortable for them. They can express an opinion without cowering in a corner. They can express fear with the trust they will be met with compassion.
3. Be mindful of fighting “fairly”.
Learn about the main offenders that escalate conflicts and make a promise to yourself to stop doing them. Deal with one topic at a time, avoid name-calling, talk about the issue at hand and don’t attack the person, don’t talk about inflammatory topics when under the influence of alcohol, and strive for peace rather than winning and being right. Learn more about how to communicate with your spouse without fighting
4. Be responsible for the wordless communicators.
Remember the old adage, “Communication is 10% what you say and 90% how you say it.”
Be constantly mindful of keeping a calm body language. Be thoughtful about your word choice and tone. (Speaking freely doesn’t mean, “Let ‘er rip.”)
And be considerate to both of you and your relationship with regard to timing and location for discussing sensitive topics. Turn off the TV and your phones. Wait until the kids are in bed or out of the house. And never shellshock your partner with a surprise “we need to talk” attack or make threats.
5. Write out your thoughts/feelings/needs in advance.
When you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, you may be paralyzed by issues that have nothing to do with him/her. Sometimes coming with an extra layer of preparation can calm your fears and help to keep you on topic.
There is no shame in carrying a piece of paper into an important conversation. And that’s especially true if your spouse knows you are working hard to improve the communication between you. They will respect you and appreciate your effort.
6. Utilize a “needs” script.
The idea here is to focus on the problem or issue, and not on the other person.
Start by stating the situation or problem. Be specific, and use only facts, with no analysis or interpretation. This isn’t about your opinion or personal take on the issue you want to see changed. It’s about problem-solving.
Then express your feelings using non-blaming “I” statements. Convey the nature, intensity, cause, and duration of the feelings. Start broadly and get more specific — but never blaming.
Finally, make a request for a specific, tangible behavior change. You’re not trying to change the person’s attributes or feelings — only a specific behavior that will help with your feelings.
“I need you to be more attentive to helping around the house” will accomplish nothing. “If you could take care of the dishes after dinner, I could get a little rest before nursing the baby again” just might get you some rest…and a clean kitchen.
7. Go back to school.
Sadly, our education system is built around subjects like math, science, and history. Topics like communication and interpersonal skills are left to social osmosis and the homefront, and these skills are even more challenging in our high-stakes intimate relationships.
And that means most people walk down the aisle with a lifetime vow predicated on whatever relationship skills they picked up from their surroundings. Doesn’t it seem strange that careers have long lists of educational and experiential requisites, but a lifelong commitment is left to chance?
There are “teachers” whose whole vocation is devoted to helping couples communicate and relate in effective ways that build closeness. And there are countless formats available to cater to your relationship goals.
When you’re afraid to communicate with your spouse, it may be because you never learned how to communicate. And, as the saying goes, “When people know better, they do better.”
If you truly love your spouse and want your marriage to succeed, take the risk on behalf of the most vital ingredient of your relationship: communication. Accept your differences and quirks, and cultivate a loving desire to meet your spouse’s needs whenever possible.
And above all, remember that your relationship is far more important than the issues standing in its way.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats in the quaint seaport, Portsmouth, NH. To learn more about Mary Ellen and her work, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.