You didn’t see it coming. You probably can’t even pinpoint how or when the shutdown began. And you certainly don’t know why it happened. But suddenly you and your spouse aren’t talking about more than basics. The irony is that, when you stop communicating with your spouse, communication is needed more than ever.
Perhaps you are looking at your marriage and wonder where it went or who this person is who sleeps beside you at night. Maybe you don’t even recognize yourself, and that distancing frightens you more than anything else.
When you stop communicating with your spouse, the content of your communication reduces to only the administrative imperatives. “Are you working late tonight?” “Jimmy’s game starts at 5. I’ll meet you there.” “I’ll drop the kids at practice. You’ll need to pick them up.” “Hi.” “Bye.” “Yes.” “No.”
Ugh. It can get so dry and shallow that it makes your heartache. What happened, you ask yourself.
Traceback to when you stopped communicating with your spouse
Before going any further, let’s pause and go back in time to when you and your spouse were first together. You want to know one another. You looked into each other’s eyes and smiled more. You were curious and listened more than you spoke. You validated, supported, and looked for ways to make your new love interest happy.
Let that sink in for a moment. How do you feel looking back on that time?
Now brave the exploration into how that started to evaporate. Did the entrance of children obliterate anything not relevant to feedings and diaper changes? Did your careers and financial pursuits creep in as headliners?
Or did you settle into the disillusionment stage of love and decide you knew all you needed to know about your spouse? (And perhaps worry that you had chosen the wrong person.)
Talking is the lifeblood of a relationship
Communication is everything in a marriage. In any relationship, really. It is the vehicle for expressing feelings, thoughts, needs, wants, curiosity. You connect through communication.
Imagine having smoke alarms all over your house, all of which have dead batteries in them. You rely on them to warn you of a fire, but without charged batteries, they are useless. They take up space but communicate nothing but annoying chirps at best.
When you stop communicating with your spouse, the batteries of your relationship get drained. And now you can’t count on it for anything more than the bare essentials. Give it a little more time in that state, and your relationship will die.
When you stop engaging on an emotionally intimate level, you stop seeking to know one another. You might think you already know everything there is to know. Or, like many couples, you make assumptions about what your spouse is thinking, feeling, or how s/he will react. You may have withdrawn because your spouse is critical, or be afraid to say certain things for fear of angering your spouse. When you stop communicating with your spouse, it drains the lifeblood of your relationship and eventually kills it.
When things get to this point of “administrating” a marriage, arguments become trigger-happy. No one wants to fight, so conversations are kept to a no-risk minimum to avoid conflict. You survive, but you don’t thrive.
The different way men and women talk
Men and women communicate differently. And try as we might to bridge the gap, gender differences remain, at least to some extent.
There’s a reason that women can talk, laugh, and cry all night with a gaggle of girlfriends. And there’s a reason men can walk away from a Super Bowl party feeling on top of their game even though they never talked about anything personal all night.
We all need different things to feel safe in a relationship. Most women need an emotional connection to feel sexual, while men need a physical connection to feel close. It’s a wonder the two ever get together when you think about it.
And when it comes to conversation, women need to feel heard at a heart level to feel validated. They don’t want to be fixed or squeezed into a budget matrix and analyzed. They want to be understood and accepted on a deep level.
Men, on the other hand, seek to feel respected. They need to feel validated for their competence and will often become defensive or shut down if they perceive criticism.
These are the natural tendencies for the genders, and they masquerade in countless detailed costumes. But the wearer of the mask is always the same.
When we therapists deal with communication issues with clients, we are always seeking to remove the masks.
- “What’s underneath that?”
- “What is the primary emotion that causes your anger to come up?”
- “What do you think he is saying when he interrupts you or tells you what you need to do?”
- “What do you think she is saying when she counters your ideas with ideas of her own? How do you feel in that moment?”
Intimacy dies when you stop communicating with your spouse
Intimacy is a balm of life; it softens the rough edges and helps us navigate life’s inevitable challenges. We feel less alone and supported. But intimacy requires vulnerability, an uncomfortable state for some people. To be vulnerable is risky and can feel dangerous, especially if a person has been betrayed after they’ve trusted a person with sensitive information in the past.
It is we also who choose what to do with the vulnerability shared with us. We can bless another by cradling vulnerability offered as an expression of trust and confidence. Or we can use it as ammunition.
But one thing’s for sure. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. And there is no marriage without intimacy.
Everyone has an innate yearning to be heard and understood. The only reason we repeat and rephrase ourselves is that we aren’t convinced we are being listened to beyond the transcript. We want emotional engagement with our spouse. And we don’t want to have to go to war to accomplish that.
When you stop communicating with your spouse, it’s a signal that something in your relationship isn’t quite right. Couples that explore what’s going on and make the changes necessary to address the underlying causes often regain their connection and start talking again. If you have trouble identifying the reasons you’ve stopped talking, seeking the help of a therapist might save your marriage.
Love isn’t a competition. But when it is treated as the gift it is, both partners — and the relationship — win.