With Any Conflict, My Husband Doesn’t Speak for Days

Reader’s Question

I’m 20 years old and I live in Chicago. My husband is away at school right now. Whenever he sees a conflict on the horizon, whether it be on the phone or elsewhere, he doesn’t speak to me for several days; runs away from his problems, if you will. This makes what could have been a tiny issue into a big ordeal. He says he doesn’t understand why he does this. I think it’s important that I do include the fact that his past is definitely rough (death of mother, for example). He recently ignored me for a whole 2 weeks when the conflict was so small! All I wished was that we spoke about it. I’m worried about this greatly.

Psychologist’s Reply

The majorit of couples in a romantic relationships live with many assumptions, such as:

  1. We should be able to express ourselves in the relationship,
  2. If feelings are hurt we can repair them and return the relationship to normal, and
  3. Expressing my opinion will not end the relationship if the issue is small.

It is very possible that your husband’s childhood has damaged these basic assumptions. The theory goes something like this (psychologists have a lot of these theories):

Children often have prolonged reactions to the death of a parent. This is especially true when the death of the parent involves children between the ages of 6 to 12 years. In this age range children believe everything that happens around them, involves them. They often feel they are somehow responsible for the death, their parents’ divorce, or anything that happens during those years. Children have magical thinking during those years and feel they often cause events to happen. Children over the age of 12 are often more able to separate themselves from the death, but still feel the full loss and bereavement.

He’s not running away from the simple problems…he’s running away from fantasized consequences. During his childhood, your husband may have lived with the sense that he was “walking on eggshells” — fearful that his comments, opinion, emotional distress, etc. could cause the departure of a parent. He now feels discussions on marital issues, even minor ones, might cause you to somehow leave (like his mother left him). From your background, you know that issues can be discussed, evaluated, solved, and the relationship continues. He doesn’t have that sense of relationship security. I’ve been involved with many clients over the years who were terrified of even mild confrontation due to their belief that their teenage misbehaving in the home caused the heart attack of their mother or father.

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I’d recommend:

  1. Using contacts with him to discuss small matters as evidence that issues can be solved without anyone leaving or becoming upset.
  2. Recognize that he’s not running from you as much as he’s running from consequences of an issue. One consequence may be your reaction to an issue — do you handle things calmly? Threaten to leave? Make him feel guilty?
  3. Remember that stress increases and amplifies our normal personality. The more school stress he has, the less likely he will be to talk to you about these issues.
  4. Always provide encouragement and future plans, assuring him after discussions that as years pass you’ll both get better at marital problem solving.
  5. Eventually the two of you can discuss a team strategy for dealing with problems and issues in the relationship. I’d recommend using a one-minute eggtimer. In sensitive discussions, each person talks one minute at a time — keeping turning it over. This prevents either person from getting “on a roll” and overtalking or overpowering the other.

This is a very common marital issue, increased by the stress of his being away at school. As his spouse, you are evaluating the relationship based on what information he is providing…and under stress he is providing very little. This restricted information would create a sense of panic in you. Focusing on “small talk” is the best way to keep the communication open. If every phone contact is a serious discussion — he’ll be avoiding phone calls.

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