How to Start Talking to Your Spouse Again: The Toxic Effects of Shouting, Sulking, & Silence

Shouting.       Sulking.      Silence.

Is it happening in your marriage?

All three signal a breakdown in communication.  All three lead to decreased marital satisfaction.  All three diminish intimacy.  And all three are rooted in anger and manipulation.  

But communication is vital in a marriage.  So, what can you do to start talking again?  First, let's look at how these toxic patterns are damaging your relationship.  

Shouting Instead of Talking to Your Spouse

Shouting is an angry, aggressive form of communication.  It might be considered a form of "verbal bullying."  Shouting was part of our long-ago survival instinct of "fight or flight," a response to feeling threatened or mistreated in some way, a form of self-protection.  "If I'm loud enough, I can make the threat go away.  I can make people treat me better."  

Sounds reasonable enough.  Self-protection is good, right?  Yes, in the right context.  Making yourself sound big and mean might frighten a bear away, but do you really want to frighten your spouse away?  

How does shouting affect your spouse?

  • Shouting induces fear.  It's hard to think when we're afraid.
  • Your spouse will respond from that place of fear.  They might choose a "fight" response, shouting back defensively, thereby escalating the conflict.  If they choose the "flight" response, however, they shut down and withdraw.  
  • Over time, your partner becomes numb to your shouting.  Love and affection die, and the relationship withers.

Sulking Instead of Talking to Your Spouse

Sulking is "being silent, morose, and bad-tempered out of annoyance or disappointment.  It is most evident through body language - the down-turned pouty lip, arms crossed defensively, head slightly tilted, shoulders turned away, an attitude of non-concern.  "Who me, sulking? I'm just sitting here."

Sulking is a passive form of aggression, more like "emotional bullying"  It is a manipulative way to avoid head-on conflict.

How does sulking affect your partner?

  • They become confused and distressed, unsure about why you're angry.
  • When they get a denial that anything is wrong, they become angry in turn.
  • Problems never get resolved, and resentment grows in both partners.
  • Partners eventually give up and the relationship simmers in unexpressed anger.

Silence Instead of Talking to Your Spouse

The silent treatment is another form of "emotional bullying."  It is used to punish and manipulate.  It is probably the most common damaging pattern of conflict and perhaps the hardest to break.  Paul Schrodt of TCU in Fort Worth, www.getstarted.tcu.edu/profile/paul-schrodt, has conducted extensive research on the damaging effects of the silent treatment in relationships.

How does silence affect your spouse?

  • They become frustrated and continue to demand a response.
  • A cycle of demand-withdraw becomes engrained.
  • Marital satisfaction and emotional connection diminishes.  
  • Over time, attempts to communicate become less and less frequent.

Conflict is normal in every marriage.  We all raise our voices from time to time and resort to sulking or silence.  But if shouting, sulking, or silence has become your habitual mode of communication, you must recognize the damage it is doing and work to make a positive change.  

Reopening Communication With Your Spouse

The biggest question is:  Do you want to fix the problem?  Obviously, you care about each other, or you wouldn't be married.  The first step to reopening communication is to think about the love you feel for your spouse.  You may be angry, but that doesn't mean you stopped loving them.  That love has to be the motivator for taking the next step; that is, recognize that shouting, sulking, and silence are tactics that only work short-term.  If you want a long-term solution, it's time to start talking again.

Where do you begin?

Focus on the Purpose of Talking

Due to your communication breakdown, you're in a state of separation right now.  The purpose of talking should be to close that gap and make you feel reconnected again.  For this to happen, you must work together and seek a solution that you can both agree upon.  So, make an effort to think of your spouse as your teammate, not your opponent.  

You must also foster understanding of the underlying problem.  Consider why there were negative reactions the last time you communicated and discern the meaning behind them.  Most likely, one or both of you felt misunderstood, belittled, unappreciated, or disrespected.

Show Compassion While Talking

The goal of conversation is to discuss the problem, not to win a battle or conquer an enemy.  Don't focus on who's right or wrong.  To talk freely, stay calm and respectful, stating your thoughts without blaming.  It will help you to hear what is actually meant, not just what is said.  

Show compassion to your spouse and listen carefully, allowing them to express their opinion without interrupting.  To make sure that you understood correctly, rephrase what you heard without sarcasm or aggression.  You probably won't see eye-to-eye on everything, and you may not resolve the conflict right away.  But, you can reach a mutually satisfying outcome, primarily, that you both feel heard and understood.

Stay Constructive When Talking About Negative Feelings

Nobody likes having negative feelings, nor do they like talking about them.  Yet, you will have to express them during your conversation to better adjust to each other's needs.  However, simply venting negative feelings in an uncontrolled and unkind way will not be effective.

Constructive tips:

  • Don't exaggerate; don't use words like "always" and "never."
  • Don't assume that you know what your spouse is thinking or feeling.  
  • Don't generalize.  Be specific and give examples.
  • Use "I" statements.  "You" statements often feel like an attack to the other person.
  • Don't hurl bitter remarks at your spouse - they hurt.
  • Endeavor to speak gently, so your spouse can catch your point.
  • Don't get defensive when you hear your spouse express negative feelings.  It will give them the impression that you're only concerned with being vindicated and that their feelings are not worth consideration.

Don't Hold Back When Talking About Positive Feelings

If you want to reconnect, you must learn to express and accept positive feelings - such as affection, appreciation, approval, or admiration.  

  It's simple mathematics.

If the sum of your compliments is greater than the sum of your complaints, your spouse will hear you.

If the sum of your complaints is greater than the sum of your compliments, your words will fall on deaf ears.

Change can be hard work.  If you and your spouse are struggling, you might benefit from the services of an experienced therapist who specializes in working with couples.  

Don't Continue to Poison Your Relationship