Allison Keating answers your queries about life & relationships
Question: I’ve been in a very happy relationship for twenty years with my lovely husband. He’s an excellent father to our two children, a fantastic provider and has been a brilliant partner to me over these last years together. He works largely from home and I go out to work.
There is one very large fly in our ointment, however. As the years have progressed he has become more and more of a talker. He talks non-stop. He follows me around the house talking, he talks while I’m on the loo, he talks when I’ve left the room sometimes! He takes over conversations so that they become extremely one-sided and ultimately, boring. If I try to discuss something, I usually get a monologue and I tune out. Being honest, it is starting to wear me down. I am trying to be polite about it, he is my husband after all, but I feel so suffocated by all the noise that I feel like the day is coming when I may lose my temper and tell him to stop in a way that might badly hurt his feelings.
I have said very little on the subject to him as I have a large pool of friends and see them when I can. My husband’s circle is smaller and he would see them far less frequently, so I put it down to him needing an outlet — and I am it. Even when I encourage him to go and see his friends, he is reluctant to. He prefers to stay at home, which is a huge compliment but sometimes it is so draining I can’t listen any longer.
This may seem like it’s a very silly complaint, but surely other people are going through something similar to me.
My question ultimately is this: how can I get him to stop talking so much? (In a way that won’t be hurtful, because I love him very much).
Allison replies: Every day, I hear people afraid of telling their loved one how they feel because they don’t want to cause hurt. Unfortunately, avoiding hard conversations is hard on you and ultimately hurts the relationship, as feelings of frustration and irritability will naturally build.
When faced with challenging situations that aren’t working for you, and as you consider the choices available to you, I always say ‘choose your hard’. The avoidance option carries damaging consequences, whereas facing and turning towards the issue is grounded in possibility and the hope of change.
This isn’t a silly complaint, the constant noise of someone talking ‘at’ you with endless monologues that may not have a point is an unhealthy set-up for everyone. Noise hijacks your nervous system, and your husband seems unaware of boundaries. He isn’t reading the cue of you walking away from the constant stream of chatter, and is encroaching on your physical space by following you to the toilet.
Firstly, you need to take ownership and ask your husband to give you a moment to go to the toilet in peace. Most of us are aware that children do this, so I’d suggest just saying it straight. Here’s the thing, I hear no malice here, it seems he isn’t aware of the impact his constant talk is having upon you, possibly because you haven’t said, but also because this is not uncommon.
Research scientist Daniel Ellis of Columbia University explains the importance of listening as a learning tool — it is something we develop automatically so a child can differentiate between the sound of a fire alarm and birdsong. He explained that listening requires ‘complex auditory processing’ and this may be why people who talk ‘at’ us may struggle to learn how to communicate in a more empathic back-and-forth rhythmical way.
I like that you realise this is a complaint. You aren’t making it personal, which is criticism and will only invite a defensive or shutting down response. A complaint is specific — what’s helpful about that is you can then think of how you are going to handle it, in terms of your reaction and showing your husband where you begin and end — the toilet is a good one to start with. By taking ownership over what your boundaries are and expressing these back to him what are you thinking of saying to your husband?
You have answered your own question — start with what you said above. I can hear that you love your husband. You name all his good qualities and point out the things that he does — it is important to notice the good in your partner.
How do you think your husband is doing? Do you think he needs to be getting out more? Compulsive talking can be a way of pushing away real feelings that may feel overwhelming. Early pioneers of this research were Professors of Communication, McCroskey & Richmond who coined the phrase ‘talkaholism’ for people who excessively talk or monopolize conversations. They found that even though others were aware they were talking too much and for too long, the person themselves was unaware of the impact they were having on others.
Characteristics include never drawing breath, talking over others, interrupting, and if the over-talking was pointed out to them, they didn’t make necessary changes. This relates back to understanding the complex nature of listening and being mindful that listening is a skill that you can learn, and that it takes discipline.
Houston came up with a great acronym called WAIT — Why Am I Talking, so when you have had a good conversation perhaps this could be a helpful word to catch and challenge compulsive talking.
Some pointers could be to listen but to have a time limit. Try and understand what he is trying to communicate with you, and repeat this back to him. If he starts again, you could say ‘sorry to interrupt I’m trying to understand what it is you wish to say, is there a feeling present?’ and ask him to pause and see where he feels this in his body.
Spend some time identifying how it shows up in his body. Is it an impulsive feeling of ‘I just have to say this’? How does silence make him feel? These will be hard and sometimes shocking questions. The constancy of the words means you never sit with the emotion present.
Start saying what is in your head, ‘I feel this is a monologue instead of a conversation, I love you dearly, but this is impacting my participation.’ Or if he talks over you when you try to explain the impact of his style of communicating, you could say ‘I am sure you don’t mean to interrupt or talk over me, but you are, let’s take turns so we can understand what is going on for both of us’. These types of scripts can help navigate what will be difficult chats.
You can also set boundaries, whereby you preface conversations with ‘I’ve had a busy day at work, I need some quiet time now, thanks’ or after being straight about your lived experience; say that you’d love to practice empathic listening and one way to do that is to become conscious and aware of your talking-to- listening ratio.
Bringing in the growth mindset gives room to make mistakes and grow. It is important for you to share how you feel with your husband. Clearly set out what is OK and not OK for you, and not only set up these boundaries but maintain them — which is the tricky, but hugely beneficial part.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org