Engaging your quiet spouse in deeper conversationsWritten by Amy Van Veen
What's inside this article
When asked if Heather* ever struggles getting her husband, Tim*, to open up and talk, Heather responded with a speedy, “Oh yeah.”
“Even when I ask him about how a situation makes him feel, he just clams up,” Heather went on to explain. “I don't know how to get his feelings out of him.”
Perhaps you, too, struggle with how to engage in deeper conversations with your strong-and-silent-type husband. Or perhaps your wife isn’t one for sharing what’s on her heart, having kept it guarded most of her life.
Maybe you’re the one who was handed this article, always guarded in your speech, always feeling like you’re not able to deliver conversationally the way your spouse so desires. Maybe you’re reading this article, hoping it will be the key to finally get your very quiet spouse talking!
There’s a reason communication is an issue continually touched on in marriage books, broadcasts, seminars and counselling sessions. Many couples struggle with this dynamic. If you feel hopeless about getting your spouse to open up with you or you feel pressured to open up when you’re uncomfortable doing so, there are ways to develop your emotional communication as a couple in a safe, healthy manner.
Robert S. Paul is a registered counsellor and was co-president of the National Institute of Marriage (now Focus on the Family Marriage Institute) based in Branson, Missouri. In his work there, he created the highly acclaimed marriage intensive programs that have helped save hundreds of marriage from crisis. Greg Smalley has a doctorate in psychology and is currently vice-president of marriage and family formation at Focus on the Family in the U.S.
Together, they wrote The DNA of Relationships for Couples, a resource shaped by stories of marriages that have been transformed with proven techniques. One of those techniques is Heart Talk, the term they use to describe healthy emotional communication.
But before you get into the steps of learning how to do Heart Talk well, there are certain things you need to understand about yourself and your partner – especially if one of you is a talker and one of you is not.
What to know if you’re the talker
Firstly, it’s important to remember that you cannot make your spouse open up and talk. If you turn to them and ask, “What are you thinking about?” the truth is they may not be thinking about anything. They may be exhausted from their day or unprepared for a deep conversation. You may be able to delve into deep conversations at the drop of a hat, but they may need more time to think about their responses. Understanding the personality differences between you and your spouse can be a huge step to paving the way for deeper emotional communication.
As you become a student of your spouse, learning how they best communicate and what they need to feel comfortable doing so, it’s crucial for you to ease any pressure they may feel to be that perfect communicator.
For many, communication is a skill that they have to develop – so it’s good to lean on that old adage of practice makes perfect.
“You and your spouse may not connect or get on the same wavelength on the first or second (or third or even fourth) attempt,” Paul and Smalley explain. “Instead, recognize that emotional communication deserves patience and a deliberate attempt to understand not only the words being said but also the emotions behind the words.”
What to know if you’re not the talker
If you find it difficult to open up and share your heart’s desires with your spouse, you need not feel ashamed. Many people struggle with communication and there are many ways to develop this skill, but the first step for you to feel comfortable doing so is to feel safe. If you feel pressured by your spouse to have profound conversations at a moment’s notice, you may need to create boundaries to better understand yourself. As valuable as it is becoming a student of your spouse, it’s even more valuable to become a student of yourself.
This is something Melissa* and Jack* had to learn through years of trial and error. Jack takes a long time to think through what he wants to say; this has led to many stalled conversations and frustrations for both of them. Now, when they have bigger topics to address, they find it valuable for Jack to sit down and write a letter – that way he’s able to address everything he wants to without the pressure of face-to-face conversation. They then come together to discuss the letter as a jumping off point for their communication.
Some people may also not see the value of emotional communication. They may think their marriage is fine with what Paul and Smalley call “Work Talk” – the surface-level conversations that get us through the day-to-day – but they’re missing out on that deeper level of intimacy that can be found through Heart Talk.
In their book, Paul and Smalley tell couples:
“Heart Talk is ultimately more efficient and takes less time than any other method. Think about it: If you don’t have to repeatedly go over the same old ground, you can spend your time on other things. Often, the reason women keep revisiting subjects is because they don’t feel emotionally understood. If husbands take the time to actually uncover their wives’ heartfelt concerns, the conversation can move on and men won’t have to hear the same thing a dozen times, from six different angles.”
Five steps of Heart Talk
Now that you’ve prepared your hearts and managed your expectations for developing your emotional communication, Paul and Smalley outline the five simple steps of Heart Talk:
Make safety the first priority.
According to Paul, you should never make intimacy your goal, nor should you make openness your goal. People want to be open with their spouses so badly that they become desperate and, as a result, reckless. The core thing every person needs to feel open is to first and foremost feel safe. When people feel safe, they relax, they open up and deeper intimacy becomes the natural result.
Listen to the words the speaker is saying.
By listening to what they’re saying, you’re adding to this safe environment. You’re not reacting with solutions or a defense, you’re not feeling attacked, you’re simply taking the time to listen.
Listen with your heart.
You may listen with your head, prepared to answer their questions and solve their problems, but listening with your heart allows your spouse to feel deeply understood and cared for – building even more safety into the environment.
Reflect back to the speaker what you hear him or her saying.
This is a basic step of communication that so many of us miss. Paul and Smalley remind readers not to react, but to try and identify the emotions behind what’s being said:
“Repeat back to the speaker what you heard, using different words, and then say, ‘Is that what you said?’ After the speaker confirms that you heard the words right, ask about feelings. Ask questions such as, ‘What were you feeling when that happened to you?’ or ‘How does that make you feel?’ or ‘When that happens to me, I sometimes feel like this or that; is that how you feel?’”
Allow the other’s emotions to touch you.
By listening with your heart and taking the time to really hear and understand what your spouse is feeling, you’re more equipped to develop that empathy that may be missing from more superficial conversations. This particular step may feel too vulnerable and too uncomfortable, but allowing yourself to feel what your spouse feels will develop a profound intimacy in your relationship.
As you move forward, prayerfully putting Heart Talk into action, remember the value of connecting with your spouse and sharing your heart with them through this emotional communication.
As author Gary Chapman explains in a Focus on the Family Broadcast, “It is an intimate relationship in that we share intellectually with each other. We share our thoughts. We share things we hear. We share things we’re thinking about. We share our emotions with each other, sometimes positive emotions, sometimes negative emotions.”
*Names changed to protect privacy
Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.
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