Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Crucial Conversations with a Defensive Spouse

Dear Joseph,

My wife and I have a communication issue. We don’t talk enough about problems. Our conversation never lasts longer than forty-five seconds. This pattern has left a lot of issues unresolved that I feel are detrimental to the long-term health of our family. As soon as there is some indication of responsibility or accountability on her part—a behavior change she needs to make or a promise she broke—she responds with something like “Oh come on!” or “I can’t right now!” or, “Why do you always bring that up?” At this point, the conversation escalates and I back off.

How can I hold a safe space when this happens and ensure that we actually resolve something? What else can I do to create healthy communication practices when I can’t even get past the first forty-five seconds?

Got a Minute?

Dear Got a Minute,

I can sense your frustration—and even despair. You crave the opportunity to get closure on concerns that are important to you and feel powerless to engage your wife sufficiently to do so. I’ve felt similarly stymied in cherished relationships in my life. Here are some reflections from those difficult times.

1. Work on me first.
First, I would invite you to consider your own behavior. Look courageously for habits or incidents where your behavior might have given her cause to feel unsafe, disrespected, or even despairing about communicating with you. If appropriate, you might even make this a focused topic of conversation with her. Perhaps beginning with, “I’ve been thinking about how I complain that you won’t stay in conversation with me about issues that are important to me. I’ve been thinking about ways I have brought that frustration on myself. I want to learn how to make our conversations work for you. I have recognized several things I do that I believe are hurtful to you. If you are willing, I’d like to ask you to add to my list. Could we talk about that sometime?”

2. Talk about talking. Having examined and owned your part, ask for an opportunity to talk about how both of you talk. Ask for permission to share things she could do to make it easier for you to discuss sensitive issues. Frame the conversation as a way of coming to agreement on ground rules for how, when, and where you’ll deal with topics that are difficult for both of you. The ground rule of this conversation is that both of you are “right.” The goal is not to agree on needs but to validate any need and ground rule the other person wants. Don’t criticize hers. Similarly, assert your own. Stand up for yourself in expressing your needs and the ground rules that will help you assure them. For example, if you struggle to share your concerns without being interrupted, you might ask for a ground rule that says, “We won’t interrupt each other—even if we disagree with what the other is saying. We will hear each other out before responding.”

3. Give her a reason to want to. Crucial conversations only work when there is a Mutual Purpose. In your question, you articulate how communication failures are affecting you. You make no mention of how they might be affecting her. Do your best to empathize deeply with what is and isn’t working for her in the relationship. Frame the request to talk in terms that sincerely appeal to her needs as well. At some level, her choice to limit her communication with you at times is rational. It is accomplishing some purpose for her. Clearly, it also has downsides—but there must be an upside. How can you present a request for communication that is more appealing than what her limits are getting her? For example, “I know at times you feel I am insensitive and unaware of your needs. I want to do better at that. I believe if I can find a way to communicate better with you, that would help. Can we take some time to talk about what is and isn’t working in our communication? My hope is that this will help me be more connected with you and be a better husband—and it will also help me feel heard and cared about as well.”

4. Influence with your ears.
The best way to help her feel safe, and feel as though conversation can actually serve her needs, is to listen. Hold yourself accountable to validating everything you hear from her, and confirming you have heard it well, before you share anything. If she shares very little, validate what she does share and reassure her you are committed to offering her more safety in the future than she has experienced in the past. As Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into.” Be willing to demonstrate your sincerity until she believes it.

I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you. Communication is life. It is the only vehicle we have for connecting meaningfully with others. I wish you the best as you improve yours.


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12 thoughts on “Crucial Conversations with a Defensive Spouse”

  1. holly

    There is a great book which guides couples through an exercise to facilitate the kind of transparency discussed here. I got mine on Amazon. “Your Best Us” I found it very beneficial and have shared it with my close friends as well.

  2. Brooke

    Got a Minute? – I hope you and your wife can use the great advice given by Joseph! I know deep down if I’d had the same advice six years ago, it would’ve saved my marriage. Communication is VERY important!

    Crucial Skills Team – Thank you for the terrific feedback on how to have a crucial conversation!

    Crucial Skills Readers – Thank you for sharing great questions that deal with everyday life!

  3. Kathy Jahnz

    Timing can also be critical to holding these types of conversations. My husband isn’t one to talk much but when something comes to mind he wants to discuss it on his terms. There are days that I’ve had a rough day at work or am in the middle of doing something when he suddenly wants to discuss something. Flexibility on the part of both partners is certainly necessary but a bit of sensitivity as to timing could be beneficial. Scheduling a time to have discussions that is mutually agreeable to both parties could be helpful.

  4. Lainey

    Such a timely post! This very morning, I had just pulled out a copy of the book “Getting The Love You Want”, which also teaches communication techniques, because my boyfriend and I are now at the point where many our differences are coming to light (5 months of dating). Time to pull out my copy of “Crucial Conversations, too!”. Thank you for helping the world become a more understanding place 🙂

  5. Chason Hayes

    Read the book Feeling Good Together by David Burns. It appears that your conversations with your wife are you trying to “help” your wife be better for your needs but she perceives them as critical in nature. She may not want to change. Ask her once and forget it and live with it. Anymore is nagging and no one likes a nag. If she quickly agrees ie 45 second conversation its not because she agrees but because she is trying to avoid conflict and just wants you to shut up and leave her alone. You have much deeper marriage issues than you realize and I recommend connection based counseling. Women don’t generally complain until its too late and they have checked out of the marriage. The husband is usually the last to know.

  6. AJ McFall

    Wow, great answer. Thought-provoking and helpful in every single point. It really helps to see those examples of how I/we might express each aspect.
    thank you!!

  7. Teresa H

    The no interrupting ground rule is a good rule for any converstion. thank you.

  8. jacque williams

    What about the spouse who dismisses feelings or justifies their erroneous behaviour? Or who feels their actions are only a response to yours, and therefore anything goes?

    1. Need Help

      That was going to be my comment. I’ve gone to a marriage retreat to work on communication with my spouse and yet, if I get upset about anything (not yelling, just not happy), he immediately justifies it and then points to something I’ve done that he’s not happy about. I’ve been working on this for 2 1/2 years now. Any advice?

  9. Yvonne C

    Loved the advice to “Got a Minute”. I to have struggled with communicating with my partner only to have things left unresolved. It is frustrating but after taking a good look in the mirror, I found that I was not speaking to him in a respectful manor. I was attacking and not letting him understand the issue at hand, just my complaints. We both now are working on better communication and I start off with some ground rules I would like so I can be heard.

  10. abdelazeezsobh

    The skills and knowledge that people experience can change a life. This book will help you in your personal and professional relationships. Crucial conversations are not about confronting, avoiding conflicts or getting away with it. It’s about how to help yourself and others stay in dialogue so you can get the results you want. It’s about learning, finding the truth and strengthening relationships.

  11. Boosting Financial Freedom - NAWO

    […] response to the questions asked during the webinar: How to advocate for your needs with your spouse Crucial conversations with a defensive spouse Being at odds with your spouse A great article by CHOICE on Raiz Personal Finance Apps Couples that […]

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