What to Do When a Partner Just Doesn't Want to Talk About It
Successful relationships are built on openness and communication.
Posted June 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- People in a romantic relationship need to negotiate discrepant desire for information sharing and privacy maintenance.
- A recent paper concludes autonomy-supportive strategies (vs controlling ones) are more effective in eliciting disclosure and maintaining privacy.
- Autonomy-supportive strategies are empathic and supportive of active participation. Controlling strategies are dominating and invalidating.
Self-disclosure in romantic relationships tends to be associated with positive outcomes, such as greater closeness, intimacy, love, commitment, trust, relationship stability, and relationship satisfaction.
Nevertheless, an individual in a romantic relationship may keep inner thoughts and feelings secret for a variety of reasons (e.g., fear of being rejected).
In fact, what is true for everyone is that there is always a tension between the desire for self-disclosure and the desire for privacy maintenance.
So, how do we negotiate discrepant desires for disclosure and privacy maintenance?
Published in the June issue of Personal Relationships, a recent study by Kil et al. concludes autonomy-supportive strategies are “perceived as more acceptable and more effective than controlling strategies for eliciting disclosure and maintaining privacy from one’s partner.”
The investigation is described below.
Investigating regulation of disclosure and privacy in romantic relationships
Sample: 286 individuals in a romantic relationship; 85% female; 94% heterosexual; average age 24; average relationship duration of 42 months; 10% married, 33% cohabiting or common-law; 83% French Canadian; 43% with a college degree; 83% earned less than CAD $30,000 a year.
Participants read two scenarios, one eliciting disclosure and one maintaining privacy.
The disclosure-eliciting scenario read: “You come home from a hard day at work, you went through an intense conflict with some colleagues, and you are preoccupied. Your partner notices your state of mind and would like to encourage you to talk about it.”
Subsequently, participants were presented with either controlling or autonomy-supporting strategies that their romantic partner may use to elicit disclosure.
To illustrate, a controlling strategy would be saying the following: “Partners who love each other must tell each other everything.” An autonomy-supporting approach, in contrast, would be: “I am available, should you want to share.”
The privacy-maintenance scenario read: “Your partner comes back home after a hard day at work. He/she is obviously preoccupied and, although you want to know what happened, he/she does not want to talk about it.”
Again, participants read a list of controlling or autonomy-supporting tactics that their partner may use to maintain privacy.
To illustrate, a controlling technique would be: “This issue is of no concern to you.” An autonomy-supportive tactic is: “I understand your concern but would rather talk about something else right now.”
- Perceived autonomy support. Autonomy Need Satisfaction subscale of the Basic Need Satisfaction in Relationships questionnaire.
- Acceptability. One item: “I would find this strategy acceptable.”
- Effectiveness. Example: “Following this answer, I would be inclined to disclose information about myself.”
Sample: 78 couples; 92% heterosexual; average age 23; on average, dating for 31 months (range of one month to 15 years); 40% cohabiting; 82% French Canadian; 36% with a college degree; 90% earned less than CAD $30,000 a year.
Members of each couple were told they would be randomly assigned to the roles of investigator (tasked with learning about their partner) and discloser (tasked with sharing their experiences, to the extent they desire to do so).
In reality, there was no random assignment. In fact, the member who desired more intimacy (based on questions answered earlier) was given the role of the investigator and the other, the discloser.
- Pre-laboratory and Post-Interaction Questionnaires.
- Perceived autonomy during conversation. Autonomy Need Satisfaction subscale of the Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs scale. Sample item (for disclosers): “I was free to reveal myself in my own way.”
- Intimacy during the interaction. Adapted a measure from the pre-laboratory questionnaire. Example: “During the conversation, how close were you with your partner?”
- Perceived relationship quality. Operationalized as relationship commitment (measured with Investment Model Scale) and relationship satisfaction (assessed with Couples Satisfaction Index).
- Romantic attachment. The Experiences in Close Relationships Questionnaire-Short Form. For instance, “I try to avoid getting too close to my partners.”
- Perceived autonomy support style of current romantic partner. An adapted version of the Perceived Parental Autonomy Support Scale. Subscales comprise the following: providing choice, acknowledging feelings and perspectives, giving rationale, invalidation, guilt induction, use of threats, intrusion, and criticisms. A sample item (for invalidation) was, “My partner questions my way of thinking or feeling.”
Controlling vs. autonomy-supportive communication
The above studies evaluated whether autonomy-supportive strategies, as opposed to controlling tactics, may help partners maintain their privacy and elicit disclosure in a way that is seen as respectful and sensitive.
The results showed that autonomy-supportive strategies are seen as more acceptable and effective for both maintaining privacy and eliciting disclosure. And they are associated with greater quantity and depth of disclosure, relationship satisfaction, lower anxious and avoidant attachment, and less abandonment anxiety and avoidance of closeness. In contrast, being controlling correlated with lower intimacy.
Despite the benefits of self-disclosure in romantic relationships, partners sometimes choose to keep their feelings or thoughts to themselves—whether due to fear of being mocked, rejected, manipulated (i.e. the information later being later used against them), or the possibility of boring, overwhelming, or hurting the partner.
So, whether you want to protect your privacy or encourage your husband or wife to open up, how can you do so in a way that is not seen as inappropriate, insensitive, uncaring, or manipulative?
By using autonomy-supportive strategies. They are characterized by:
- Exchange of information, not making evaluations or assigning blame.
- Acknowledging feelings and perceptions.
- Showing empathy, concern, and interest.
- Being flexible regarding the content or timing of disclosure.
- Promoting initiative and active participation in decision-making.
Controlling strategies, in contrast, are perceived as disrespectful, dominating, threatening, invalidating, guilt-inducing, deceiving, or rejecting.
In fact, being controlling may create a vicious circle. This occurs when a partner seeking intimacy and closeness does not receive it, so resorts to more controlling strategies, which then cause the other partner to withdraw even more….
Why do autonomy-supportive approaches work? Perhaps because they increase not extrinsic motivation (e.g., pressure by the partner) but self-driven or intrinsic motivation (e.g., desire for emotional support).
Such strategies are particularly helpful for those who are anxious or avoidant, enabling them to turn to their romantic partner for support when experiencing stress.
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