We Just Won’t Talk About It

Posted on February 13th, 2020

Silence is never the answer – Elie Wiesel

Every relationship has subjects which aren’t talked about, topics one or both partners have decided are taboo. These could be simple issues like cleaning up clutter or more difficult concerns like chronic illness, overdrinking, or having another child.

Sometimes these untouchable topics have been arrived at by trying to talk about them and running up against intense fights or cold silence. Other times the subjects seem so volatile that they don’t get mentioned in the first place.

The result of having these subjects not talked about is that they begin to deaden the relationship. One or both people develop the habit of holding back disagreement, holding back questions, holding back feelings. Rather than becoming merely a quiet spot in an otherwise lively relationship, these places of holding back eventually spread out and affect the rest of the relationship. The relationship begins to lose the three-dimensional absorption of a healthy involvement and takes on the grayness of a two-dimensional, formal playing out. 

The alternative is learning how to talk about what you keep yourselves from discussing. With this skill, couples can turn from overheated, unproductive arguments to navigating even those subjects about which they are diametrically opposed.

The elements of this skill begin with approaching the topic with respect for each other and for the emotional tangle behind what may seem like a simple disagreement. It helps to agree from the start that what you are looking for is a way to move forward collaboratively rather than trying to win the argument. Even so, these aren’t conversations to start on the fly. They need a lead-in, an opening like “I want to talk to you about X, so can we set aside some time to do that tonight?” 

The first conversation about X might simply be an opportunity for each of you to talk about your considerations, what matters to you and how you feel about it. This means talking about your own views rather than challenging the positions of your partner. It’s “I’m feeling unheard” rather than “You’re not hearing me.” 

Don’t be put off by the fact that you disagree. Any two people looking at their relationship closely will find much they disagree about, everything from thermostats to finances, from time together to childrearing. There are often even disagreements about which disagreements to take seriously. 

Be prepared to jointly stop the conversation when it starts to get overheated. You may need to come back to a subject for a second time or a third (or more), as you try to work your way through from your differing perspectives to developing a unified position you can both live with. Taking time between these conversations should allow you both to rethink what has been said and to come back with a fresh approach. 

Even when you end up not being able to agree, the understanding and respect you gain for each other’s positions can go a long way toward building the strength of your relationship.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.