How to talk to spouses who aren’t talking

Something’s triggered yet another angry stony silence. Here’s what not to do.


Here’s the problem: your wife makes sarcastic comments about you in public. Later, when you object, she insists you have no sense of humour. At home, she withdraws into a stony silence. You try to talk to her but she says she wants to be left alone. If this infuriates you and makes you want to scream or file for divorce, psychologist Robert Nay has some advice specifically for people living with angry romantic partners.

Sarcasm and stony silence are just as much anger issues as yelling and name-calling, says Nay, who’s been helping couples deal with anger for 30 years. In his new book Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship: How to Break the Cycle of Arguments, Put-Downs and Stony Silences, Nay admits it’s impossible to force change on someone, but “there’s a lot you can change even without the co-operation of your angry partner. With a strong lead from you, there’s a good chance your partner will follow, and repairs can be made.”

He points out that you wouldn’t let a shop clerk yell at you and call you names, “but when it’s the person you love most who imposes his anger on you, it’s easy to get roped into trying to compensate, ride it out, and extend empathy. The trouble is, by doing so over and over, you signal to your partner that hostility, yelling, name-calling and sarcasm are fine with you.”

“When you make changes,” he writes, “your partner is faced with a dilemma: keep doing the same old thing without getting the same old reaction from you, or change. You cannot control your partner’s decision but you will immediately feel better about your own life.”

To break the cycle of stony silence (a form of passive aggression), Nay advises, “Stop making heroic efforts to figure out what your partner wants.” If your partner says, “I don’t really want to talk,” or “I’m not hungry,” “take it at face value and try not to become a mind-reader, asking questions like, ‘Are you mad at me?’ and ‘Do you resent something?’ ”

Counter-withdrawal isn’t a good solution either, says Nay. Instead, “let your partner experience the logical and natural consequences of his or her passive tactics.”

And don’t try to “psychologize” about your partner’s unexpressed needs or speculate in this way: “I guess you won’t talk to me because deep down you are unhappy and scared. This is probably because your mother is so critical.” Instead, say: “Okay, I’ll have to assume you’ll let me know when you’re ready to talk. I won’t ask you again.” If your wife retreats to another part of the house, “do what pleases you without regard to her until she is willing to approach you directly,” says Nay.

If your partner resorts to yelling and name-calling in the heat of an argument, don’t yell back, thinking “two can play at this game,” he urges. “You will only end up with the empty post-argument feeling of regret.” What’s more, yelling back allows your partner to feel justified: “You clearly have a problem with your anger, too.”

If your partner is standing and yelling, invite them to be seated. “This immediately reduces the physiological tension. If the other refuses, you sit and say: ‘I really want to hear what you have to say but I wish you would sit so I can relax and just listen.’ ” When your partner’s voice escalates, bring your voice lower, advises Nay, and try to “agree quickly with anything you can agree with to take the wind out of the other’s sail.” You don’t have to agree with the specific allegations, he says, but try to agree in principle to something. For instance, you could say, “While I don’t agree that I ‘never’ call Mom and Dad, let’s not quibble over that. I do agree with your main point that we should try to do more for them.”

Don’t apologize just to end the conflict. “This will only solve your problem for a short while. In the long run, you have humbled yourself just to keep the peace—clearly undermining your self-esteem and right to be heard.”

“If you have trouble asserting these rights,” writes Nay, “you need the support of a counsellor who can help you get strong enough to set firm boundaries and hold to them.” Why, he asks, “would you want to stay with someone who cannot accept you want to live your life without threats and conditional love?”

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