I write a fortnightly column for the Great Eastern Mail. Missed an edition? Here I share past letters for you.

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Dear Emma, my husband and I have been married 25 years now. But lately, every time I bring up a problem or difficulty I am experiencing, my husband has started shutting down. Before now, I felt we could talk about almost anything but now that’s all changed. Help! How can we go back to what it was like before?

Thank you so much for writing in. Marriages, like any relationship, can be tricky as you seek to resolve conflict. Communication and negotiation are vital to any healthy relationship, but the good news is these are skills that can be learned. That said, I’d like to begin with addressing the issue behind why you are both struggling to have these discussions. This may be more important than the problem or difficulty itself.

You might be tempted to think it’s all your husband’s fault. After all, he is avoiding the conversation and shutting down the subject by leaving the room, changing subjects, or giving his attention elsewhere. His communication is non-verbal, but he is telling you that he is not engaging. He may be avoiding the conversations for several reasons, and it would help for you to know why. He may be feeling that he cannot solve the problem for you, or anxious that he will disappoint you if he doesn’t fulfil your expectations. He may be afraid of where the conservation will lead to or that he may be required to change. Understanding the why behind his behaviour will inform how you can address it together.

However, as hard as it is to say this, you play a role too. A conversation takes two. And a conversation only ends if one side lets it end. It’s not just how he is responding to you that matters, but your response to his refusal too. Both must be addressed for communication between you to move forward.

Your response matters too. Instead of reacting with defensiveness, disappointment or accusing him with a statement such as “you always do this”, try pausing with a deep breath and then respond with an ‘I Statement’. An I Statement allows you to express your opinions and feelings to without assigning blame and placing further strain on the relationship.

I Statements have four parts to them.

  1. I feel … name feeling
  2. When… explain the situation
  3. Because … explain the impact it has on you
  4. What I need is …  include what you want them to do – be specific!

For example, we might commonly say “You always leave your mess lying everywhere.” An I statement would sound like “I feel frustrated when I come home and the house is messy because my days are work are so busy and it’s overwhelming. What I need is for you to pick up your stuff more often.”

Another example would be “You don’t care about me or my feelings.” Restated as an I statement it could sound like “I feel frustrated when my feelings aren’t heard or acknowledged because it makes me feel like I’m not seen. I need you to listen to me when I talk about my feelings.”

Secondly, get curious about what is going on for him. Has something changed that is causing him more stess? Is he experiencing something you might be unaware of? Offering him a listening ear, empathy and validation might go a long way to opening thechannels of communication for you both again.

Give it a go and see how you and your husband get on using I statements with each other. Remember communicating effectively isn’t just a skill you’re born with. It can be learned, and with a little repetition and practice, things will get easier. I hope it helps!

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