BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I have an ongoing issue with my partner of seven years. If I ever bring up a “serious” topic, he won’t just resist talking about it, but have something bordering on a panic attack before shutting down completely. He’ll then need to detox for hours by being alone before he’s good to talk about anything again, even minor things like what’s for dinner.

By “serious” things I mean long-term financial planning, whether he wants kids, his plans related to school and career, what would happen if one of us dies. (We aren’t married.)

I’ve tried broaching these topics in a variety of ways. Casually. Sternly. Trying to approach it like a negotiation. I’ve never actually given him an ultimatum, but I have told him that if he doesn’t try to do something about his inability to talk about these bigger things, I’m going to be reduced to issuing an ultimatum eventually. No matter what I do, it always ends the same way.

I am the primary breadwinner and we have enough money to pay the bills. I don’t really want kids, so for the most part, we can get along fine without these topics being broached on a day-to-day basis. I mostly just try to avoid them, but inevitably something comes up that forces the point, or I can’t stand it anymore and I need to talk to him.

I feel like he has some issues with anxiety and needs to talk to a professional. How can I convince him that he (or we) needs to see somebody about this without that conversation itself producing a meltdown?

Lesley
Dallas, Texas


Dear Lesley,

I can see why you’re concerned about this pattern between you and your partner. Communication and negotiation are vital to any healthy relationship, so even more important than the specific “serious” topics you hope to talk about is the issue of why you’re both struggling to have these discussions.

What your partner is doing is called stonewalling. It’s a way of checking out of the conversation. A person might avoid a topic by being silent, changing the subject, ignoring his partner by scrolling through his phone instead of listening, or simply leaving the room. Essentially, stonewalling shuts down a conversation.

But even though the problem seems to lie with the person who stonewalls, the other partner plays a role, too. After all, a conversation ends only if you let it end. It’s not just how he responds to you bringing up these conversations. It’s also about how you respond to his refusal to have them.

Here’s an example commonly seen in couples therapy: A husband brings up a topic his wife doesn’t want to discuss, and she begins to cry. He, in turn, feels bad for making her cry, immediately backs off from the topic, and turns his attention instead to her tears. Now they’ve both backed away from the original topic—he, to avoid causing her more distress; she, to avoid something she doesn’t want to discuss. It’s a manipulation, but one that both partners participate in.

You’re doing something similar with your partner. He gets anxious and leaves the room, and to avoid causing him more distress, you let the conversation drop. You’re both afraid of something—he, of the topic; you, of upsetting him. So you collude in his avoidance by not bringing it up even after he’s recovered.

He may avoid these topics for a number of reasons. It may be that he’s afraid he’ll disappoint you by not being able to fulfill whatever expectations you have around money, kids, or jobs, and disappointing his partner feels intolerable to him. It could be that he’s had the experience of being steamrolled during these kinds of conversations—interrupted, argued with when he gives an answer his partner doesn’t like—and the thought of being unable to make his point leaves him feeling anxious and out of control. It might be that he finds himself overwhelmed by the number of topics presented to him at once, or that he thinks the discussion of one topic will inevitably lead to another. (It’s often easier to hear “Can we talk about money?” than “Can we talk about money, which also relates to kids, your school plans, and what happens if we die?”) It could be that these conversations have gone badly in the past—maybe with you, maybe with someone else—and he figures, I don’t want that to happen again. It might be that he believes having these conversations will require him to be accountable and make changes he’s not interested in making (getting a better job, finishing school). He may suspect that discussing these topics will lead to a discussion about marriage, and he doesn’t want to go there.

You both likely come from families in which resolving marital conflict wasn’t modeled well, and so your parents either “never fought” or fought in a way that felt frightening or destructive. In some families, too, when people say “We need to talk,” they really mean “You need to listen while I complain about you.” People who grow up in families like these tend to want to keep the peace in their relationships, but what they get instead is distance, loneliness, and resentment.

So how can you approach your partner about going to see a therapist together to unravel this pattern between you? You’ll need to respond differently to his retreat in the face of difficult topics by setting a boundary. Note that there’s a difference between a boundary and an ultimatum. A boundary is about setting a limit for yourself. An ultimatum is about controlling someone else by insisting that they change.

You’ve already issued an ultimatum by telling him that if he doesn’t change, you’re going to give him an ultimatum. But that hasn’t helped because (a) ultimatums rarely work and (b) you’ve never followed through. Instead, a boundary is both kind and firm (meaning delivered with love and confidence rather than anger and wishy-washiness), and clearly states the limit you’re setting for yourself.

In this case, it might go something like, “I love you so much, and it’s upsetting to see you get so anxious when I bring up certain topics. But I also want us to have an intimate and long-lasting relationship, and a relationship in which we can’t talk about basic life issues, or even more difficult things, won’t be fulfilling for either of us. It won’t allow us to be close to each other or feel truly safe with each other if so much is floating unsaid in the air between us. I can’t be responsible for your anxiety—I don’t create it, and I’m not here to fix it. That’s up to you. But no matter what you do about that, I need us to get help with our communication in order for me to feel confident that we can be a happy couple, which is what I very much want for us.”

If he shuts down this conversation before you’re able to finish, you can keep your boundary in one of two ways. First, you can set up an appointment with a couples therapist and email him the time and place, and write concisely in that same email what you attempted to explain when he panicked. (He may find absorbing something he can read at his own pace easier than something you say to him in real time in a room together.) In couples therapy, you both will experience a way of having these conversations that feels connecting rather than acrimonious, which in turn will make him less anxious about having them going forward.

And if he says he won’t go to the appointment, or refuses to acknowledge your email, you can make an appointment for your own therapy, which will not only preserve your boundary of getting help with the communication problem (at least your role in it), but also help you learn how to set and maintain boundaries in your relationships, a lesson that sounds long overdue.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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