THE BLOG

Dear Family Whisperer: How to Make Him Listen When You Need to Talk

07/07/2014 11:03 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014
Blend Images - Jose Luis Pelaez Inc via Getty Images

Dear Family Whisperer,

After being a stay-at-home mum for three years, I would like to go back to work. My partner is well-educated, talented and self-employed, but does not earn enough to support our family. I have higher earning potential, but returning full-time to my previous career would involve relocating, which he is unwilling to discuss due to his anxiety about change. For example, one of our son's toddler classes was moved to a day my partner usually spends with us. He was stunned. Finally, I decided on my own and told him how HIS week would now be, HIS time table, and he was fine with it. We have a good balance in our relationship, in part because I have a high EQ [empathy quotient] and understand his difficulties. He strives to do and be the best he can be and gives everything he has to give to our son and me. But he doesn't want to discuss my career options and how they will impact our family, and I don't want to make this big decision without him. I'm stuck -- how do we move forward with a matter that effects the whole family and which needs discussing? This is something of a burden because I'm not a dictator.

-Burdened Partner

In every relationship, there's a "deal" -- often unspoken, and sometimes unconscious. It seems that you carry much of the emotional weight of your relationship in return for your partner's love and generosity. You make decisions and arrangements, and he adapts. Until now, you've accepted his unwillingness to participate in family decisions. But your question suggests that it also might be time to reevaluate the deal. Is it still working for you?

Recently, I reminded a reader that she and her husband were not, as romantic songs would have us believe, in "the same boat." A healthier image of two partners shows them traveling down the same river but in separate boats. In your case, you've done most of the "steering." Perhaps you always will. However, your boats will be more in sync if you can at least navigate together.

Take it slow, but do move forward. If you share childcare and housework, bravo! Many women would envy you. But also give your partner a chance to do his share of the emotional work. Reassure him -- and yourself -- that no decision has to be made at this moment. However, you need to at least discuss your options.

Break down the process into bite-size pieces. Today, just open the discussion. List one or two things you want to talk about first. A week or two from now, take a next step.

Try not to "baby" him. In the past, he might have gone ballistic over an unexpected change and you had to calm him. While that's admirable -- being empathetic is a key relationship skill -- being overly so can short-circuit the other person's growth.

Be specific. Ask him what actually bothers him about this change: having to move, your being out of the house more, his spending more parenting time? What's the worst thing he imagines happening?

Let yourself be vulnerable. Right now, you're each frozen in a role -- he, the "anxious" one, and you, the "rock." Tell him that you need his support, not just his presence. Admit that the prospect of changing your everyday routine scares you, too. That small shift can "allow" him to step out of character -- and he just might surprise you.

If he won't participate in a discussion, ask him to at least listen. Then lay it all out for him -- why you need and want to go back to work, what you see as your various options and how each choice might affect the rest of the family.

Respect his process without catering to his anxiety. If he becomes uncomfortable sitting there while you talk about change, offer to write down your thoughts and concerns. "Listening" to you on paper will give him time to digest your perspective without feeling pressured to respond. Let him have his reaction -- alone, if he prefers it. Then, set up another time to talk.

Ultimately, how and where you choose to earn a living is your decision. But voicing your concerns and considerations will help you clarify what you want and, just as important, gauge what's feasible for your family. Even if your partner continues to stonewall, it will at least help him prepare.

And let's not forget: No one likes change!

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this topic in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.