Thursday, April 18, 2013

Dismaying Story #137: The Talkative Partner

Dear Andrew,

We've all heard the Golden Rule before: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Usually, I find this to be sage advice, however, I'm starting to get the feeling that this behavior is driving a wedge between me and my partner.

I prefer a more verbal communication style. I ask my partner to share his thoughts with me because it makes me feel like my partner trusts me and I feel like it gives me a chance to see a side of him no one else does; therefore, I try to role-model this behavior by talking about my innermost thoughts and desires in the hopes that it will encourage him to open up. My partner, on the other hand, seems to prefer a more silent approach, where hugs and kisses are supposed to communicate these deeper feelings. For example, about 15 minutes after having an argument, my partner pulled me aside, gave me a kiss, and said “I love you.” I later found out that he considered that an apology, but I was looking for an acknowledgement of his role in the argument and a clear-cut apology.

I recognize that my partner probably doesn't want to hear me babble on and would prefer a more reserved approach, but I also feel that if I stop role-modeling the kind of attention I want to receive, I will never get what I want. How do you reconcile differences in how you want to be treated?

Signed, Chatter Box

Dear Talkative One,

I can understand your desire to be with someone who fulfills your needs. We all want that. It seems, however, that the way you’re trying to achieve this isn’t creating the desired outcome. Let’s examine why.

For starters, I could interpret “Do unto others” somewhat differently in your scenario. You interpret it as communicating openly with him in hopes he will communicate openly in return. What you’re actually doing, though, is trying to change him. You’d like him to behave in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him. So if he were to treat you the same way you’re treating him, he would use his natural behavior (which he’s already exhibiting) in an effort to change you. He’d try to get you to adopt his communication style. That would likely result in an unproductive stalemate.

You’d like him to make you feel good, so the golden rule suggests you should find a way to make him feel good. As you’ve described it, however, your babbling is intended to satisfy your needs, not his.

Every person and every relationship evolves over time, so it’s natural – even necessary – to ask for change once in a while from our significant others. It’s generally a recipe for disaster, however, to enter into a relationship knowing you’ll only be happy once you’ve changed something fundamental about your partner. I’m not saying that’s what you’ve done, but you have to be careful about trying to change your partner’s basic personality. I get the sense you’re effusive and he’s more reserved. If so, you might as well accept right now that this will always be his general nature. No amount of asking, modeling, or pressuring will change someone’s core traits.

Here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself. Will you be happy only once you’ve changed his basic nature? Or will it be enough if he can learn a few tricks of the trade so he can fulfill your needs better? If it’s the latter, we can start think about how to teach him ways to accomplish that.

One of you has to break the impasse by taking the first positive step. I suggest you do so, for the simple reason that you can make that happen but you can’t choose for him to do so. One of the most effective ways to begin making changes is to first acknowledge your own role in how things have gone so far.

You mention using role modeling as a way to ask for change. That’s unfair to him, in a sense, because it requires him to guess why you’re acting that way. He could be forgiven for coming to the most obvious conclusion, which is that you’re sharing your inner thoughts because that’s what you naturally like to do. You could admit to him that your explicit objective in doing this was to encourage him to do the same, and then you could apologize for becoming frustrated with him when he didn’t take the hint. This is an example of what I mean by taking the first positive step. You start to ease any existing tensions by offering an apology.

Another well known chestnut is not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He offered you the gift of an apology after your argument. He did so using language that took a while for you to decode, but nonetheless he was sincerely trying to make up. Your response was to be critical of his gift. It would be good if the two of you can come together on how to state apologies so they work best for both of you. Since that hasn’t happened yet, your initial olive branch might include an apology for not being more gracious in accepting his attempt on that occasion.

Finally, I suggest you forget your strategy of hoping he’ll take your hints. Instead, simply flat out ask for what you want … but with a few caveats:
  • Be conscious of putting a positive spin on your requests. Avoid saying things like, “I hate it when you’re quiet all the time.” Instead try this: “It makes me feel special when you share your innermost thoughts and dreams. Will you do that for me sometimes?” Rather than predicting failure if he doesn’t comply, predict great success that will come from the requested change.
  • Don’t ask for more than he can deliver. Like I discussed above, asking him to change his fundamental nature is likely to end in failure.
  • Be as specific as you can. Something like “Will you please be more talkative?” is too general, because it’s difficult for him to know specifically what he should do to make you happier. Instead, ask for something he can do right now: “It would make me feel better if you acknowledged your role in that argument. Will you please do that for me?” And by the way, that one works better if you’ve just finished acknowledging your own role.
  • Avoid the dreaded C words – ‘can’ and ‘could.’ We men can be literal creatures, so a request like, “Can you tell me what you’re thinking?” is often interpreted as, “Do you have the ability to tell me?” You’re not questioning his capabilities; you want him to take action, so state it that way: “Will you tell me?”
I get the sense from your email that you and your partner have plenty of positive things going for you. His giving nature prompted him to proactively offer up an apology after your argument. You obviously care enough about the relationship that you’ve given the issues serious thought and have reached out for help. Hopefully you’ll find my suggestions helpful in reconciling your differences. I wish you the best of luck and I’d love to hear how things turn out.

All the best,


  1. Who is there out here who doesn't want to be heard? Any style of communication should embrace listening before speaking. Yet those (whether male or female) who hog the road, are tantamount to a Air Bus landing on a two lane secondary road. Bandwidth is exhausted and throughput is log jammed.

    It appears that we all should pay more attention than we are to each other, whether in a relationship or not.

    Rev. John Sussewell; D.Min.

  2. I can appreciate your situation, Chatter Box. For me, the "do unto others" rule isn't about role modeling at all. It means to do your best to give others what they value, just as you wish for them to give you what you value.

    Men tend to show their love by action (hugs or standing up for you or doing something special for you) rather than through words. We women, on the other hand, can be practically addicted to words. Your husband seems to value hugs, so if I were you I'd make sure he got plenty of them. And I'd follow Andrew's advice in terms of asking him for what you want (and keeping your expectations realistic).

    You might also try asking him a specific question about his feelings or dreams. Modeling what you want by talking encourages him to listen. Asking him about his inner world encourages him to talk. So ask him some questions - just be sensitive to when he doesn't feel like sharing, or when he's had enough. Men often don't know what to share, so a specific question can make things easier. Just don't be too disappointed if the answer isn't as deep as you'd like it to be. Men tend to have less emotional awareness than women; we're just wired differently. But we can still appreciate each other.

  3. It can be a mistake to think that talking ALWAYS fixes things. It doesn't - what some feel is "open communication" can be fraught with traps and the makings of disaster. "Least said, soonest mended" is another old chestnut that has its origins in a spot of truth.
    I think it's condescending to "model" something for your partner to imitate. It can also be exhausting to have to listen to someone disburden, explain, expound, dissect and analyse verbally all the time. Perhaps learning how to read non-verbal communication could be useful in this case.
    Perhaps it's useful to understand a relationship is NOT a scale upon which everything is weighed, lest - horror of horrors - one of the pair might be giving more than they get.

  4. I think it's reasonable for the woman to hear, "I'm sorry." from a person when it's justified. Just because her partner shows his love in the different way, doesn't mean she should not expect those two words.
    But getting her partner to open up more often may be far more difficult. She will need to tell him that she wants to hear "I'm sorry." occasionally, when warranted.
    Being wired differently, as men often are, is no excuse for those simple words.
    I made my children say them even when they didn't mean them because they needed to learn that a) it won't kill them to say them, and b) it can go far to mending a relationship, and the child will eventually realize their mistake. But if not said early, a whole relationship can be ruined permanently.
    If her partner is unwilling to say, "I'm sorry." he needs to reassess how much he loves and cares for his wife. And likewise, the wife needs to forgive him regardless of what he discovers about how much he loves her, if only for her own peace of mind.

  5. Nothing is worse that feeling compelled to express something you do not feel. Even feigned affection gets you into deep strife.

  6. "Men tend to have less emotional awareness than women" - really??

    Simply because something is not immediately visible does not mean it's not THERE. Being emotionally aware does not require one to have all their thoughts in their mouth, rather than inside their head.

    We admire children for being vocal - the younger they are, the more likely they are to exclaim or cry, because that is how they are biologically tuned to get the attention essential for survival. With maturity, the ability to have a thought or a reaction without vocalizing it comes through.

    Without saying men are more mature than women, or vice versa, which would be a gross generalization, it is possible to say that some women and men are reactive creatures, who give voice to their needs as easily as their knee responds to a mallet. Others tend to dissect and analyse mentally before coming out with words to express what they feel, if at all. Some think that their partner can read their mind, so there's no need for anything to be expressed in words.

    What's needed is an understanding of SELF and OTHER. "What am I like? What's he like? How can we understand how the other processes emotions and information, and consider the differences?"

    Just because I dissect and analyse silently does not mean I do not do it at all, despite the fact I am female. Just because I feel reactive exclamations, discussions, and diatribes are immature does not mean my partner is necessarily immature as a person because he speaks more.