What To Do When Your Partner Won't Communicate

We often hear that communication is a key part of any successful relationship. But what happens when your partner refuses to talk to you? No matter how hard you try, it's impossible to communicate with someone who simply isn't willing to engage. Whether your partner shuts down during fights or sits in a sullen silence when they get annoyed, a lack of communication can slowly chip away at your relationship.

But as frustrating as this can be, a partner who won't communicate isn't always a death sentence for your relationship. In fact, there are a number of healthy ways you can approach your non-communicative partner and help them to open up. We spoke to a few relationship experts to find out how. So, if your partner refuses to speak to you, these expert tips on what and what not to do can help you to slowly form new communication habits that will transform your relationship. 

Give them space

Although it may feel counterintuitive, if your partner won't speak, what they probably need is some space. It may be tempting to push them to tell you how they're feeling, but instead, it might be better to take a step back. 

As Andrea Miller, relationship expert, author of "Radical Acceptance: The Secret to Happy, Lasting Love," and CEO and founder of YourTango, tells us, "Forcing your partner into conversation when they may not be ready or need to spend some time alone with their thoughts can be not only useful for them, but a gift to you as well. We are not always able to verbalize what's going on inside our hearts and minds." According to Miller, giving yourself and your partner space to think, reflect and compose yourselves will make communication easier later on.

According to Jodie Milton, a relationship and intimacy coach at Practical Intimacy, giving space is usually the best tactic for someone who experiences "emotional flooding." "Giving them time and space allows them to process their emotions more effectively, and in turn work out how they want to respond," she tells The List. "It can prevent conversations from escalating out of control and gives you both a chance to be calmer and more collected when you communicate."

Figure out exactly what you want to say

One of the worst things you can do with a non-communicative partner is approach them with half-formed thoughts. While some couples are able to talk things through and figure things out together during a conversation, for other couples, it's more effective to take time to figure out exactly how you feel before sitting down to talk.

"Do some self-reflection and write down your key or most important pain points or needs before you share them with your partner," Miller suggests. "Writing may help you to focus on prioritizing what really matters most to you, and can help you to simplify, by stripping away the ideas that are less important."

As Milton points out, reaching internal clarity will make your communication more effective — which, in turn, can encourage your partner to find their own sense of clarity and open up. "The clearer you are on what you want to say, why it's important to you, and how your partner can help, the more productive the conversation will be," she says. "Reflect on what you want them to understand, what your underlying needs and desires are, and what a resolution looks like moving forward."

Pick your timing for a conversation well

If you're dealing with a partner who struggle to communicate or tends to become withdrawn, unfortunately, you may need to be more careful about when you broach sensitive subjects. Some non-communicative people withdraw from conversations when they feel emotional, tired or stressed. So, in order to give the conversation the best chances, pick your time wisely.

"Timing is important. You don't want to try to start this conversation as they fall asleep, or leave for work, or the kids are around," says Chris Parsons, a marriage coach and author of "The Happy, Healthy Marriage Reset." "Find a time where they have the mental and emotional space to have it."

Miller recommends paying attention to your and your partner's energy levels. What are you most focused? "Is it early or mid-mornings, afternoons or early evenings?," she asks. This way, you can schedule conversations at the best times. "Find the intersection of your best time and your partner's best time of the day — when you're both free of distractions of work, and can be together to actively listen to one another, mirror your words, and find common ground and understanding," she says.

Avoid getting angry and making accusations

When your partner shuts down in the middle of a conversation, your first instinct might be to respond with anger. Why can't they talk to you? Why are they shutting down? Even though these thoughts may start swirling around in your head, try to avoid firing accusations at your partner — because, unfortunately, this will probably only make matters worse. "Making them feel attacked by getting angry or making accusations will only cause them to further shut down and withdraw," warns Parsons.

Instead of becoming angry, try to practice empathy. "Close your eyes and imagine someone screaming in your face and accusing you of things you have not done," suggests Miller. "Don't be that person. Take a series of 10 deep breaths before you begin your communication with your partner."

If you can't calm yourself down, it's probably time for a time out from the conversation. Take a break and try to open the lines of communication again later rather than getting angry.

Don't try to bribe or threaten your partner into talking

When your partner clams up and refuses to communicate, you might find yourself so desperate to get them to open up, that you start trying to bribe them. You may find yourself saying things like, "If we can just talk this out, I'll make a delicious dinner later on," or, "Please talk to me, or I'll leave." Even though you may be tempted to take any means necessary to get your partner to start talking, it's probably not a good idea — after all, unless your partner really wants to talk, the conversation probably won't be very productive.

"You don't want their compliance in talking to you by trying to bribe them, you want their desire to open up to you," says Parsons. "Encourage that by starting with sharing how you feel and inviting them to do the same."

Miller agrees. Instead of bribing your partner, simply try asking them to open up. "Honesty and authenticity are the keys to open, real conversation with your partner," she says. "You should not need to entice or cajole your partner, instead you might suggest something to the effect of, 'I really need a few minutes to talk with you later. Can we agree to meet at X time? It would mean so much to me.'" If this doesn't work, it's probably time to take a step back and pick up the conversation again later.

Try to keep communication calm

As soon as communication becomes heated, it usually starts to become less productive. The more emotional you and your partner become, the less likely you are to empathize with each other. Plus, if you're dealing with a non-communicative partner, they will become more likely to withdraw.

Parsons suggests keeping things calm by avoiding the blame game. "Try to keep communication calm by focusing on feelings, not arguing over whose side of the argument is more accurate," he says. "In a relationship, there's always two sides and two different experiences of the same thing."

Miller also recommends trying a technique called "creative visualization" before you start speaking to your partner. "Imagine you're sitting on a warm beach, having a conversation with your partner," she says. "Your mind and body feel relaxed, you breathe deeply and let go of any anxiety. Maintain that frame for conversation with your partner."

Practice using open body language

One of the reasons why your partner might start to shut down during conversations is that they feel attacked. Even if your words aren't attacking your partner, your body language might be coming across as aggressive, accusatory, or stand-offish. By using open, kind body language, you'll help your partner to feel more confident in opening up.

"We're all incredibly sensitive to our partner's body language," Milton tells us. "How you show up physically has a huge impact on how open and receptive your partner will feel. If you're able to keep your body language open, you'll be showing your partner that you're genuinely listening to what they have to say, and it's safe for them to open up too." 

She recommends starting by breathing slowly, relaxing your body and opening your arms. Stay close to your partner; you can even place a hand on them if it feels appropriate. By being physically open with your partner, you'll encourage them to be emotionally open in response.

Explain how your partner's lack of communication makes you feel

If the timing feels right, it's important to empathetically explain to your partner how you're feeling. Without making accusations or blaming your partner, tell them how their silence makes you feel. While it may seem obvious to you, it's not always as clear to your partner.

"This will help you to feel seen and heard, and it will also help your partner to understand why communication is so important to you," Milton tells us. "But be careful not to shame or blame your partner. If they find it hard to open up and communicate, they likely feel shame or guilt about it." 

Instead, be specific. Tell them about behaviors and habits that make you feel a certain way. "Include examples of when they've communicated well and how that made you feel, and then contrast that with how it feels when they're not communicating," she recommends. "Make it clear you don't mean to blame them, but you want them to understand why communication matters."

Work together to find out why your partner finds communication hard

Once you've explained how your partner's difficulty with communication makes you feel, work together to understand where this habit of shutting down comes from. This will help your partner understand that you want to help them rather than accuse them.

The best way to begin the conversation is simply to ask your partner how you can help. "Ask your partner why they are struggling with communication and what you can do that would help them," Parsons says.

Miller recommends asking other guiding questions, like, "Can we practice speaking and listening to each other? Are there things that make communicating with me difficult that I can change? What would make communication easier and more fun? Can we be more playful in our conversations?" Try to keep these questions organic and natural to make your partner feel as comfortable and supported as possible.

Later, focus on finding a solution to your partner's habit of shutting down

Once you and your partner have had a conversation about why communication feels difficult, turn your focus to finding workable solutions. Solutions will look different for every couple — and it might take you a while to find a solution that works for you. 

"Remember, communication is a process that plays out in baby steps, and it takes constant work," Miller says. "Focus on the parts of your communication that might be challenging for your partner. Work through the blocks that surface in a conversation, and ask your partner for help." For instance, you and your partner may realize that whenever certain topics come up, they freeze up. "Once you learn what these are, you can begin to understand which changes you each need to make," she goes on. "By truly being open to another, we shift the energy and make space for whatever our partner may have to say." 

Even though it might be hard, continue to point out when your partner is falling into the habit of shutting you out. "Ignoring problems only makes them worse," he says. "Continue to ask them about their feelings and what would make them want to share them."

When your partner does speak, listen

If you have a partner who struggles to say what they feel, be careful to always treat whatever they do say with respect — even if, to you, it doesn't feel like enough. "Nothing will make your partner shut down faster than asking them to share their feelings then dismissing those feelings, or trying to convince them that they are wrong and shouldn't feel how they do," Parson tells us. "Listen and ask questions to genuinely understand."

It's also important not to try to respond too quickly once your partner finally starts to open up. "You need to listen deeply, actively, fully to your partner on a daily basis," says Miller. "This means setting aside your ego and desire to speak, and work toward a meaningful, powerful connection through eye contact, listening, and repeating the key words your partner shares."

As Milton puts it, try not to "listen to respond." Instead, listen to understand. The more you try to really understand your partner, the more they will feel safe telling you more.

Find out each other's love language

The concept of love languages, first conceived by Gary Chapman, is the idea that everyone has their own preferred way of communicating love. By understanding how you and your partner are different, you can improve your communication. If your partner tends to find communicating with words difficult, it may be to do with their preferred love language being different to your own.

"Each of us operates differently when it comes to our needs in a loving relationship, and Gary Chapman's book is an excellent and useful resource for partners looking to deepen their bond," Miller tells us. "Whether it's words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service or physical touch, or a combination of these, identify which is most important for you and for your partner. Your courage to engage in this level of openness and honesty will likely be contagious and maybe even transformative."

And as Milton adds, by understanding your partner's love language and catering to it, you can help them to feel understood, which, in turn, can help them to open up. "If you can use each other's love language when communicating, even better," she says.

Speak to your partner's friends and family about how they communicate

Struggling to understand how to speak to your partner and have them speak back? It may be worth chatting with your partner's friends and family about their experiences. This way, you can find out whether this is an issue with everyone or just you. You might also pick up some tips for people who have a little more practice.

"Get to know those closest to your partner — it could be an old friend or a sibling," Miller suggests. "You want people who really know your partner well, and can help you understand how to best communicate." By spending time with your partner's friends and family, you will slowly pick up useful ways to communicate with them. 

Plus, as Milton tells us, understanding your partner's other relationships can help you get to the bottom of why they find communication so hard in the first place. "But remember that communication with a partner often triggers deeper insecurities and fears, so don't take it personally if your partner is more open with others than they are with you," she adds. "Instead, listen with curiosity for any helpful tips or feedback that might help you with communication in your relationship, while knowing that the context is still quite different."

Get support from a professional

If all else fails, it's always a good idea to seek help from a trained couples counselor who will be able to give you healthy tools to work through your communication problems. "Healthy communication in a relationship is an incredibly important and nuanced skill, but it's not one we're usually taught or modeled," says Milton. "Speaking with a professional can help you learn positive ways of communicating together, while also addressing any toxic behaviors or hidden challenges getting in the way."

And remember, some therapy is always better than no therapy. "Even a session or two can change the course of your relationship," Miller says. "A good starting point I'd recommend is the powerful Safe Conversations method created by Harville Hendrix, PhD. and Helen LaKelly Hunt. It gives you a foundation and the tools you need to communicate from a place of empathy and support for one another."

Healthy communication with your partner will be a work in progress — but take things slow and practice empathy, and over time, you will hopefully learn some communication tools that work for you.