Why Married Couples Stop Talking to Each Other

In restaurants, you can usually tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this? Why do long-time married couples stop talking to each other?

As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for the silence is self-defense.

Defense against what?

For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when not heard by their husbands. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he interprets what he hears as criticism and control. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel these things; each is merely doing what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense.

Accepting Influence

Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a principle underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence. “Decades of data show greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives.

This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected.

The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems a bit imbalanced to me compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of inciting as many relationship problems as it solves.

It is undoubtedly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need to adjust their own natural inclinations, as men are called to do.

The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to each other if both genders adjust their natural tendencies, making it easier to accept influence from one another. 

There is another remarkable book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman’s book by about two millennia. It’s the New Testament. In it, Paul pens: “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands. “(Ephesians 5:25).

The Opposite of What Comes Naturally is Often Needed for Growth

Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands. “He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse.

This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own gender. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse.

Women long for love; men long for respect.  This verse in Ephesians calls on men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in an intimate relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into precisely what the other gender means by these words, and how these are perceived.

married couples stop talking to each other

Typically, a wife feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband patiently listens to her.

She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes to be done with the subject.

And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes, there is. 

The Reasons Why Married Couples Stop Talking to Each Another

There are interlocking reasons why long-time married couples stop talking to each another. Men long for respect and are sensitive to criticism. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling. “

This is due to a misunderstanding of a woman’s longing to have influence in decision-making, made manifest by her offering ideas, making suggestions, asking devil’s advocate questions, and generally trying to help.

The problem is that men hear their wives’ line of inquiry as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). These are in direct conflict with one another at all times and quickly become conversational barriers.

What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. In this case, it is a chance to learn more about typical gender differences concerning socialization and neurology.

Men want to protect and serve their wives and families by competently making decisions that will heroically fix things. Women want to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and foster togetherness. 

Thus, they become involved in whatever issue is at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because women see tasks, issues, and problems are opportunities to connect.

How It All Unravels

What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on an error in syntax, some logical inconsistency in what she said, or some financial, philosophical, mechanical, or scheduling problem inherent in her idea.

One of the reasons why long-time married couples stop talking to each other is that husbands are problem solvers and will tend to point out problems that require fixing.

married couples stop talking to each otherIn a woman’s world, this is profoundly unloving.

A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her spouse’s idea, using kind, emotional words.

Her focus would be on connecting and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas.

When her husband fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience.

When he brings up an idea, his wife— to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision.

To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and hears instead a request for him to abdicate his authority.

What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. And this clash of ideas is how, over time, long-time married couples stop talking to each other.

Married Couples Stop Talking to One Another When They Fail to See Each Other’s Perspective

The research tells us that women share ideas to connect; men share ideas to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. For many men, asking pointed questions is a challenge to what they are doing. It is often seen as directly questioning their intelligence and competence.

Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples stop talking to each other.

The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.

What is the answer to why married couples stop talking to each other? Step one is simply to recognize the pattern. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender.

Translation is Necessary.

Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary for a relationship. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud, “more than men typically do.

He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not a debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her.

Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, other ideas, and voiced doubts, instead of granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his spouse, – confidence, admiration, and encouragement.

Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees.

Married Couples Stop Talking to One Another When They Fail to Get Underneath Gridlocked Issues 

This understanding and mutual yielding will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past our self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not.

Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel heard and protected, and a man needs to feel respected, not controlled. Also, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens the ability to craft a joint decision.

  • The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as “becoming a dream detective.” Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop and have a generative conversation.  The idea here is to identify and articulate each other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome.
  • This can stop the conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again.
  • Married couples stop talking to each other because it’s the same conversation over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is vital to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the more significant areas with which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree.
  • Secondly, as Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy tells us, relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary emotions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, loved, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict.
  • When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative, and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does.
  • This is a common reason why married couples stop talking to each other. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy, and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.).
  • What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as a spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of their defensiveness.
  • This brings us to the third point concerning why married couples stop talking to each other. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully, such issues are few and far between.
  • If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on repairing our relationship, then we can relax on most issues.

married couples stop talking to each other?

Can we pause and switch sides – defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own?  If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would defend ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen more quickly.

What if a couple spent their time vying for what was essential to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight?

This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock. He suggests “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade self-defensiveness for other-defensiveness, and a vast array of new options open up to us.

We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.

How to Start Talking Again

“Between stimulus & response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Dr. Victor Frankl.

The solution to why long-time married couples stop talking to each other is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in their marital discussions. If the discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away as the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way. At the same time, the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost.

How do we address the way married couples stop talking to each other? We change our view of the “win, “such that is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer or not.

Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions?

Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion?

If you want to know why married couples stop talking to each other, we have to ask a different question.

 Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness?

If we want to know why married couples stop talking to each other, we have to ask a different question: questions that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well.

Because You Want to Learn How to Start Talking Again.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Doug Burford

Dr. Burford is trained in the Gottman method and specializes in relationship counsel, both premarital and marital. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he has served churches in both the Presbyterian and Alliance traditions, and has contributed to Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Dr. Burford has been married for over 35 years and is a father and grandfather.

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  1. The decline of communication into conflict basically comes down to a few things. First, we all want empathy and understanding. We are terrible at this. We tend to respond to someone's feelings and point of view by stating our own feelings and point of view. Then we argue about whose are more valid. If we instead lead with empathy and understanding, many arguments will come to a halt. If we can stop at empathy and understanding, expecting that we will have differing feelings and perspectives (why wouldn’t we?), then conflicts can be diminished, or maybe avoided, altogether.

    Another primary driver of conflict in self- defensiveness. This is often in response to a “story we’re telling ourselves” (Brene Brown), which is often a negative interpretation of the other’s words, actions, tone, timing, or something, from which we’ve drawn a conclusion that they are somehow not “there for us.” Attachment wounds and negative experiences from any realm of life contribute to this story. Dr. Gottman’s identified six toxic or destructive patterns basically come down to self protection. The antidote to all of the six destructive patterns is some form of protection of our spouse (not ourself) and protection of our relationship from a mutual enemy (topic) that is turning us against each other.

    A third thing that divides us from one another is competition, or control-battles. When in control battles, we are helped by the principle, “Yield to win." This is because, tragically, if either of us "wins "an argument against our spouse, then the marriage loses. If our spouse feels defeated by us, then the marriage has lost. Thus the timeless wisdom to "choose our battles;” to be sure before we go to the mat that this issue is important enough to let divide us. If not, we ask ourselves, “How can I support the other, here? If both are asking that question, perhaps there can be peace.

    Finally (as concerns this brief response), the ratios that Dr. Gottman’s research has discovered tell us that our relationship rises and falls on how we're making each other feel. Every interaction is a "deposit” or "withdrawal" in our couple “Love Bank." If we have a well-developed “Love Map," then we have a good idea of how to make our spouse feel "good." If we are not putting this knowledge to use, then the relationship is suffering a series of daily losses. If we are creatively putting our Love Map to use, then hopefully we are seeing many wins per day, measured by whether our words, actions, and reactions made our spouse feel good.

  2. I am a military veteran, and I have been married to my high school sweetheart for over forty years, and we just can’t talk to each other for talking at each other, and believe it or not we believe in Jesus Christ.

    1. That, George, is the start of the conversation. “Martha, I love you. And I’m just heartbroken about the fact that we can’t have a conversation without it going south. I think I hold a lot of responsibility for that. What should I do to begin to turn this around?” Then listen. And listen. And listen. Even take notes. Women, generally, really want to talk and be heard, and when they stop, it is a terrible sign. Do it now, George.

  3. This article has great food for thought but what do you do if your partner sees your request for needs to be met as a reason for a power struggle? “Honey when you leave the room while I am speaking I feel disrespected. Please stop doing that.” Then they have attitude about it. Or you say “you getting up and walking away angrily is triggering fear for me.” No move to comfort or reassure the partner. She asks clearly for what she wants and needs and he resists it. Sometimes he gives it later, but by then she’s already grieved the loss of a caring husband and is in despair. Or he waits so long to do it that the wife (a) has no idea he’s trying to meet the need she expressed and/or (b) feels manipulated because he refuses to engage in a straightforward manner. Why does he have to see it as a control issue? Your wife asking you to show caring behaviors is about helping her feel safe and loved so how is that controlling? She fights for understanding and he fights to win and seems uninterested in learning to view it differently. He wants the last word, he wants to dissect her position to invalidate it and thinks he’s won if he manages to do it, and then he blames the wife when he wins the battle but loses the war of having a healthy partnership because no wife can be happy if the husband seeks to invalidate her complaints constantly instead of listening and trying to do something about it. What else can the wife do in that situation if they also have done marriage counseling?

  4. My husband of 39 yrs now has a stressful job where my wonderful he a nurse manager. He works his but off and is mostly stressed . I want to be his sound board, his safe space but he is to stresses his says to talk about it. So he now I guess it stresses him out cuz he wants to leave it at work. I feel ignored and left out. Probably because I’m going thru empty nest. But we always talked and I guess I felt important to him then. I just miss our connection we always had for 30 yrs. I’m feeling unimportant but he says that is not the case. We love each other he just doesn’t share much anymore. He says I should just be happy. Maybe he is right idk

    1. Be specific about wanting to talk every day, and even if he doesn’t want to get into the specifics of his work challenges, invite him to speak with you about the coworkers he likes, what they are like, how they are adapting, etc. No one “should” be happy. As you do now, if you have a complaint, create a specific action he can take to change. Maybe a cup of tea and 20 minutes a day to catch up. If work is too stressful, he can talk about anything else.

      And do also target actions you can do together, as well as words. Take a look at 5 Love Languages and figure out what his and yours are and have a conversation. It might help.

  5. Dear Dr. Burford: ‘Did not know you.are a Presbyterian Minister until I finished reading this. I’m a Presbyterian! What attracted me to your article was the Apostle’s words about Marriage. My husband and I are going through “not talking” and this taught me a lot! I’m a huge fan of Dr. Viktor Frankl and Dr. Gottman! After reading what you wrote here about the reasons why our conversations have ended, I believe we can find ways to repair our Marriage! The Silence began recently, so it’s not too late! I agree with your reasoning about why this happens. My wonderful husband was away from interaction with women for almost 30 years and he finds it difficult to understand our need to converse. In some ways it feels natural to me because his quietness takes me back to the time when my 2 Presbyterian Geandfathers would sit with me in Golden Silence when I was about 3 or 4. So I do love Silence at times! It seemed back then, that men did not talk as much. So I often think of my husband as a very old-fashioned man! It helps me cope to think like that!! But perhaps my 2 Grandfathers were going through what you have written about here? I don’t know! They were married to 2 strong, proactive Presbyterian women like me! If my Grandmas could stay married “til death” then I know I can too! It’s just a matter of Adjusting after realizing we are in this Marriage Together! Thank you for your words of comfort and love. I am sharing this with my husband. It is a bit “over our heads” and we will have to reach to interpret and understand it, but it will be worth it!! Jy Bol

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