What to do when your partner isn’t interested in communication

One of our readers asked:

“Do you have some ideas for how to work your communication ideas into a relationship, when the other person thinks you sound like crazy new-age hippies? Or how to even bring up the topic of open communication in a relationship, when there aren’t any specific problems, but you think you could be communicating a lot better?”

Good question!

I suggest first trying the direct approach, then if that doesn’t work, being more subtle (but without being manipulative).

The Direct Approach: Be a Communication Pirate

Be direct and straightforward. Ask for what you need. (Swearing, peg legs, and longing for a life on the sea are optional.)

“Hey honey, what do you think about improving our communication in our relationship? I don’t think anything is wrong, but it might make things even better.”

“Sounds like crazy new-age hippie crap to me.”

Yeah, that’s a bit of a roadblock. Buying your partner a copy of our new-age hippie-crap book is probably right out, too. (: Another common roadblock we’ve seen is:

“Hey honey, what do you think about improving our communication in our relationship? I don’t think anything is wrong, but it might make things even better.”

“If nothing is wrong, then everything’s fine, right? If everything’s fine, then there’s nothing to fix. So don’t worry about it.”

Communication can be scary.

Communication can be a scary subject. Deepening communication could mean digging up some things that have lain buried for a long time. It might mean you’ll be getting emotional. It might mean you’ll be doing some introspection. It might even mean that your relationship will become more intimate and that you will be — don’t say it — vulnerable.

Why is it scary for you?

To get past these roadblocks, it’s best to go to the roots instead of putzing around with the branches. What does “new-age hippie crap” mean to you? Why do you find it uninteresting or distasteful? What stereotypes do you have about new-agers or hippies? Or crap, for that matter? (;

What’s so scary about trying to make things better even though everything’s fine right now? Are you afraid that our relationship might sink if we rock the boat in any way? Why are you worried about that? Is it because of some other issues between us?

Or is it because it’s scary to dig things up inside yourself? Is it because it might take you outside of your comfort zone into the scary realm of vulnerability? Is it frightening that you’d be taking more responsibility if your inner workings were more transparent?

Be on the same team.

Be supportive and loving. Be on the same team — you and your partner working together to solve these mysteries and support each other. Don’t be an interrogator — I know I sounded a bit like I was giving you the third degree in the above paragraphs.

Try using “I” statements. Talk about how communication has improved your life. Talk about what you find scary about it and how you are working through it.

Plunder the Booty!

If it does work, and your partner opens up to the idea of improving communication skills, individually and with each other, then that’s wonderful! Steal as many useful ideas as you can get your hands on (ours are free for the plunderin’) and share them with your partner. Be sure to introduce them in a positive way that improves both of your lives, so your partner will be glad they opened up to communication.

However, I could be making the usual error with these suggestions. I’m talking about getting past roadblocks to communication with… communication. If your partner is resistant to communication, then the direct approach may not work well. In that case, you may wish to try…

The Subtle Approach: Be a Communication Ninja

If your partner isn’t interested in improving their own communication skills, you can try the subtle approach. You can still work on your own communication, and hope that some of the changes catch on.

“Hey honey, I know you’re not interested in all this new-age hippie communication mumbo-jumbo for yourself, but I’d still like to improve my own communication skills, and that will affect the way the two of us communicate. If it becomes an issue, let’s talk about it, okay?”

At this point, it becomes a matter of boundaries. Do you want to carry the communication burden for two people? How much extra communication responsibility are you willing to take on? Ask yourself this question and listen clearly for an answer. Check with yourself every once in a while to make sure you’re not setting your boundaries out too far and taking on responsibility you’re not happy with.

But to the extent you’re comfortable with, you can…

Work new concepts into conversations.

We find the catchy names like “the usual error” and “the William James zone” to be very helpful in remembering important communication concepts and calling them to mind in useful situations. But if your partner doesn’t want to work on their communication skills, then talking about the concepts without naming them might be more useful.

Instead of saying, “Oh, I think I just made the usual error,” you can say, “Oh, I accidentally assumed that you would react the same way I would have reacted.” Instead of saying, “I’m just stuck in the William James zone, please give me a few minutes,” you could say, “I’ve got adrenaline and angry juice flowing through my veins, it’s nothing personal, I just need a few minutes to let it run its course. I need to let my body calm down before my emotions can calm down.”

This idea of working new things into conversations and hoping that others pick up on them is similar to a technique used in unschooling called strewing. Leave interesting things lying around in the hope that your child will play with them. An important difference is that your partner is not a child, and so there’s a fine line to walk…

Don’t be manipulative.

We’re not suggesting that you be an evil ninja. We’re suggesting that you be a good ninja. Don’t hide your ulterior motives. Come right out and say it.

“I know you know this, because we talked about it before: I’m interested in improving our communication in our relationship. I know you don’t want to change your own communication style, and I respect that. I’m changing my own communication style mostly because I want to for myself, but I want to be totally open and above board with you — I’m hoping you’ll like some of these changes and pick up on some of these things too. I just wanted to let you know; I’m not trying to be sneaky about it.”

Make it a positive experience for your partner.

When you do work new communication techniques into conversation, be sure to do so, at least at first, in ways that make your partner’s life better. Instead of excitedly pointing out, “I think you just made the usual error! This is great, this means this argument is probably just a miscommunication,” bite your tongue. Wait until you make the usual error. Then you can say, “Oh, I think I just made the usual error. We can work out this argument much more easily now, because I think it’s probably due to a miscommunication and a mistaken assumption on my part.” It’s the same principle behind “I” statements. Your partner is much less likely to react defensively when you point out something about yourself.

Avoiding needless conflict and resolving arguments peacefully are good things. If you can use your newly acquired communication skills to introduce more peace, harmony, and goodness into your relationship, maybe your partner will reconsider their opinion on this new-age hippie crap.

That’s about all I’ve got for now. I hope this helps. (: