Help for Couples Where One Partner Does All the Talking
I know what you're thinking. I need to learn to speak up. It's a miracle I can even put out the Spritzler Report because of my terminal shyness. I need to come out of my cocoon and blossom into a Bald Eagle.
Help for Couples Where One Partner Does All the Talking
Couples where one person talks a lot more can run into problems. Here’s help.
Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ
April 4, 2023 8:00 am ET
I recently sat next to a married couple in a restaurant. For most of the meal, the wife kept up a steady chatter: about their kids, their elderly parents, and the family’s upcoming vacation.
Her husband nodded, smiled and even patted her arm. But he hardly said a word.
Suddenly, after more than an hour, the woman stopped talking and glared at him.
“Would you please JUST SAY SOMETHING?!” she demanded. “Your silence is making me crazy.”
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In many relationships, one person speaks less. For some couples, this works out fine. Quiet types are often attracted to chatty partners specifically because they do all the conversational heavy lifting. And some talkative folks are perfectly happy listening to their own voice.
But tensions can sometimes flare when a couple settles into a speaker-listener dynamic. Talkers can become exhausted from doing all the work of informing, entertaining and connecting in the relationship. Quiet partners can get frustrated when they feel misunderstood or can’t get a word in edgewise. And both may end up bored—and resentful.
The good news is that both psychologists and linguists say it’s possible for couples with unbalanced talking styles to recalibrate. But it will take a little work, especially in one key area: the conversational pause.
Our conversational style is influenced by the family and the culture we grew up in. Personality plays a role too. Some people are born talkers. I’m one of them. When I was young, my dad often told me: “Lizzie, you could talk to a tree!” (I do sometimes.)
For talkers, conversation is the glue that holds the relationship together, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of numerous books on communication, including “You Just Don’t Understand.” They talk to be close to the other person. They process their emotions through talking. And if their partner doesn’t respond much, it can feel like a rejection, or as if the relationship is floundering.
Quiet types are often baffled by this. They typically process their feelings internally and feel less need to air them out. For them, talk is simply a way to relay information, and being together is what makes them feel close to their partner.
The pause in a conversation is where couples can change this dynamic. Chatty types tend to expect shorter pauses. If a partner doesn’t jump in quickly, they think that he or she doesn’t want to speak and they just keep talking.
Quieter people often need a longer pause to process their thoughts. If they don’t get one, they can think: “You’re not interested in what I have to say.”
For Laurie and Barron Helgoe it’s the pace of the conversation that causes problems. He’s an attorney who talks a lot and expects a response quickly. She’s a psychologist, who wrote a book on introversion, and needs time to think, she says.
“It can sometimes feel like I’m visibly aging between the sound of my last word and my lovely wife’s reply,” says Mr. Helgoe, 61.
The Helgoes, who live in Edina, Minn., have been married for 39 years. In the beginning of their relationship, Mr. Helgoe took his wife’s silence to signal that he should just keep talking.
Over the years, the couple has learned to balance their conversations. When her husband is speaking too fast or intensely for her, Dr. Helgoe, 62, now gives a “time out” sign or tells him to “holster it.” She also explains when she needs more time to respond. And Mr. Helgoe tries to shorten his sentences—and is more careful to listen.
How can couples better balance their conversations? Here are some tips from the experts.
Talk about your differences.
You want to get rid of the blame, Dr. Tannen says. “No one’s style is right,” she says. And a mismatched conversational pace doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. But you do need to understand each other’s perspective.
If you’re the quiet one, learn to interrupt.
The talker may not realize you are waiting for a pause, so Dr. Tannen recommends you push yourself to start speaking before you feel comfortable. “Talkers are not always eager to do all the talking,” she says. “And you might be amazed when they stop.”
If you’re quiet, narrate your silence.
It’s important to show your partner that you’re listening and engaged, says Marissa Nelson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C., who helps couples cope with communication problems. A simple “I hear you” will do.
It will also help to explain that you need more time to process your thoughts, she says. This will help remind your partner to slow down. And be reassuring.
If you’re the talker, lengthen your pauses.
What feels like a long-enough break in your thoughts to you may be too short for your quieter partner. If you find it difficult to slow down, try counting to seven, Dr. Tannen suggests.
You can also simply ask: “Do you have something you’d like to say, or should I keep going?”
If you’re the talker, consider zipping it.
Try shorter sentences, speaking in paragraphs and sticking to one topic at a time.
But the occasional silence is OK, too. “Leave a little space so your partner can step into it,” Dr. Tannen says.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Elizabeth.Bernstein@wsj.com