By Jaime Jo Wright, Crosswalk.com
Many of us are married to that person. You know the one. The one who can answer even open-ended questions with a “yes,” “no,” or worse, a grunt. These are the spouses whose minds you cannot explore, whose hearts retain many secrets, and whose facial expressions are either impassive or full of unexplained expression.
For an introvert married to an introverted non-speaker, this will be easier for them to navigate. Introverted individuals will have an innate understanding that their person needs time alone to process internally. They will understand that an unending well of verbalized thoughts does not inspire conversation. But there are also drawbacks to an introvert married to a non-speaker. Because at some point, words become—well, they become necessary. And a non-speaker may simply prefer to skip that part, leaving communication—or lack thereof—as an unscalable wall.
Extroverts will often have a difficult time traversing the waters of a non-speaker’s thought life. The idea that a person would internalize and problem-solve in their minds before expressing it is juxtaposed to the extrovert’s need to hear a verbal discussion before reaching a solution. Add to that the extra nuance of their spouse not being interested in verbal communication at all, and you have a recipe for some potentially destructive endings.
So why do some people prefer to avoid communication? Often, it is not because they are pouting, melancholy, brooding, or irritated. Contrary to their placid or stone-faced demeanors, the non-speaker may very well be perfectly fine. In other words, nothing is wrong, so stop asking; they are not thinking anything. Don’t pry for something that’s not there, and if they have something to say, they’ll say it; otherwise, there’s nothing to say. It’s a conundrum for those who like to converse—which is a majority of the population. So how do we share and communicate with a spouse who simply does not want to vocalize?
1. Consider silence to be positive communication.
Let’s make the presupposition that your marriage is relatively healthy. Assuming you are not already processing exceedingly difficult undercurrents of circumstances, you can look at your partner’s silence through a different set of eyes—or in this case, listen with a different set of ears. What does that mean? It is very tempting to conclude that something is wrong if your spouse isn’t speaking to you. Women especially—at the risk of stereotyping—are very practiced in analyzing silence. Regardless, once a conclusion has been drawn, often the “hounding season” begins. It typically sounds similar to:
“What’s wrong?”; “Is something bothering you?”; “Are you okay?”; “Why won’t you talk to me?”; “Did something happen?”
Instead, as one non-speaker once told me: “If I’m not saying anything, then nothing’s wrong.” He didn’t elaborate, but it became clear that he also meant that if something were indeed wrong, he’d either say something or deal with it. Interrupting a non-speaker’s silence is often not unlike interrupting someone who is speaking. It can be rude, intrusive, and annoying to the non-speaker. Try, instead, to assume that their silence is a positive thing. They are content. Tension does not exist—unless you create it by trying to get them to talk.
2. Trust the person to speak when necessary.
I’m often surprised when a non-speaker is left to themselves and their silence, how often they become more elaborate communicators when they finally do break their silence. Because they haven’t been coerced, pleaded with, begged, or scolded into saying something, they enter conversation of their own volition.
These people typically have a lot to say of value, even if words are short and pointed. Most likely, they’ve already spent quite a long time considering it in their minds. When they do choose to express themselves, it is often well thought out. It may still be concise, or they may elaborate. Sometimes, they will become far more expressive. This leads us to the next point.
3. Listen and don’t interrupt.
Once a non-speaker begins to verbalize, often this is met with excitement. Yay, they’re finally talking! Instinct kicks in, and we immediately reciprocate in conversation. But keep in mind, your non-speaker may have barely gotten started. In fact, their pause for breath or thought may come across as though they are finished and waiting for your response. You’ll launch into a reply only to discover in a few minutes, they’ve withdrawn again.
Try this instead. When they begin to share, listen. Maintain eye contact. If they pause, give them time to reload or think through what they’re going to say next. Just about when the silence gets awkward, they will likely continue if they’ve more to say. Otherwise, at that point, you can reply.
However, when you reply, be careful to keep your response concise as well if they shared a brief experience with you. Regaling them with a fifteen-minute recounting of your own similar experience will be very effective in shutting them down. Make your response a response about them and what they just shared. This invites further dialogue and communicates that what they have to say to you is important to you. You aren’t just looking for an opportunity to talk about yourself or your day.
4. Stay on topic.
Often, conversations end up segueing into other topics. When a non-speaker does choose to communicate, be cautious of switching topics too soon. In other words, if something they say brings up a new point or a new focus, avoid a quick switch. This will serve to put the period at the end of whatever conversation they intended to have. If they’re telling you about an interaction with an individual who bought a new car, and the idea of a new car reminds you that your car needs an oil change, bringing up the oil change indicates you are finished talking about the new car and have moved on to your maintenance issues. This is a clear signal that the original conversation is now over. Instead, make a mental note to remember to bring up the oil change, but give the current topic enough time so that your non-speaker can accurately convey what they wanted to.
Communication is never cookie-cutter. In a healthy relationship, a partner of few words can be challenging, especially if we begin to try to read their minds and project our assumptions onto them. If you add in other relational conflicts, then lack of communication can become dangerous and divisive. If this is the case, then the points above will be absolutely critical to have any hope of clear communication in the future.
In conclusion, it’s important that you don’t demean, ridicule (especially publicly), put on the spot, or accuse someone who is simply quiet by nature. Quiet is not a sign that something is wrong. Quiet is not a sign that they do not care. Quiet is not a sign that they disapprove. It may simply be that they are biding their time. Waiting. For that moment when you finally sit in silent companionship, the breeze blows gently, the trees sway, and a restful solace opens the opportunity for them to share what’s on their mind. Soak it in. The silent people in our lives are deep wells with much to offer if we only listen.
Related Resource: Listen to our new, FREE podcast on marriage: Team Us. The best marriages have a teamwork mentality. Find practical, realistic ideas for strengthening your marriage. Listen to an episode here, and then head over to LifeAudio.com to check out all of our episodes:
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Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. The Christy Award-Winning author of “The House on Foster Hill”, Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing suspenseful mysteries stained with history's secrets. Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com!