Help Your Spouse to Open Up
Bernadette and Bud adored each other and were happily married for about three years. Bud believed that Bernadette was his perfect match because she was fun, attractive, and bright; she could discuss world politics like a pro, and he reveled in their stimulating discussions. Bernadette thought Bud was her superman because he loved kids, could fix almost anything around the house and was a dedicated worker.
Their electric chemistry began to fade when Bernadette realized that Bud had difficulty sharing his feelings. She had noticed this flaw earlier in their marriage, but now it was really starting to bother her. She often wondered how Bud felt about his parents’ divorce when he was six years old, but he never talked about childhood pain. Sometimes she just wished they could have intimate conversations.
Bernadette regularly complained to her girlfriends that Bud almost never shared a feeling and that he seemed emotionally distant. She said, “I wish he’d tell me he misses me when he comes home from work, but he almost never says things like that.” After a particularly upsetting bout of complaining, she got up the courage to talk with him because she longed to figure out how they could be closer.
Bernadette tried to talk to Bud about her feelings in a loving way, but, understandably, he took it as criticism. He replied, “I’ve never been one to talk about my feelings, and I really don’t know how. Why can’t you accept me the way I am?” Bernadette felt sure that he was trying to manipulate her and that he was able to talk about his feelings if he would just try. She assumed, falsely, that he didn’t want to make the effort, and she didn’t understand that it truly was hard for him. She became mildly attacking and said, “I don’t understand why you’re not motivated to create an exceptional relationship — you don’t even want to try.” Bernadette was upset and hurt at what she interpreted as a lack of caring.
During the following week, however, a light bulb went on for Bernadette. She realized Bud was talking about his feelings when he said, “I don’t know how.” While it was not exactly what she wanted to hear, Bud was sharing something about himself. Bernadette reflected on how she could have been more sensitive, so she decided to tell Bud that she believed him when he said he didn’t know how to talk about feelings and that she was glad he shared what he did. Bernadette was doing a good job of introducing a feeling discussion. When the time felt right, Bernadette asked Bud if he wanted to learn more about expressing feelings so they could get closer, and, fortunately, he agreed to try. Bernadette said, “All you have to do is put some words to the thoughts in your mind. So if you like an outfit I’m wearing, just tell me — it would be music to my ears.”
The Truth about Feelings
If you want to help your partner open up about his or her feelings, remember the following:
Sharing feelings is broad territory, so practice listening for subtle expressions. Bud’s statement “I don’t know how to share feelings” was indirectly sharing that he felt inadequate for the job. He felt that everything would come out wrong.
There are stages in a marriage. The first stage is generally when the partner seems incredibly awesome. The second stage is when one or both partners start to recognize their differences, and they tend to emotionally move away. He or she realizes that the partner is not perfect and notices the flaws common to all human beings. Experts in the field of couple’s therapy refer to this stage as the “emerging differences” stage. For more information about the stages of marriage, read the book “Tell Me No Lies” by Ellyn Bader, Peter Pearson, and Judith Schwartz.
Many partners truly do have trouble sharing feelings because they grew up in families where no one talked about feelings, they were hurt emotionally when they expressed their feelings, or they had a major loss during childhood and shut down emotionally.
Strategies to Help Your Partner
Here are three strategies that can help your partner to open up:
Develop your ability to sense when your partner is introducing a feelings discussion. When Bud said, “Wow, I really had a tough day at work,” he was not complaining but was sharing a feeling. Bernadette’s response, “Tell me about it,” enabled Bud to open up more. While there are five core feelings — sad, mad, angry, scared and love — there are dozens of words that a partner might use to describe underlying feeling states such as impatient, frustrated, jealous, overwhelmed, pressured, and trapped. Some common feeling phrases include “it drives me up a tree” and “it’s useless.”
If your partner is introducing a feeling discussion, be sensitive and ask questions. Words such as “what happened,” “tell me more” and “I want to understand” can help get the ball rolling. Asking questions like “What is overwhelming you?” can help partners clarify their thoughts and go deeper into their feelings. Remember, it’s healthy to want to process feelings, and feeling understood is important in healthy relationships. When people feel understood, they are then in a position to move forward and solve problems. As an added bonus, stress levels are reduced when people express and discharge their feelings.
Be sure to extend some sort of simple appreciation. After Bud told Bernadette more about his tough day, she said, “I’m glad you told me, I never would have known.” Bernadette felt a lot closer to Bud as he gradually learned to share his feelings, and she felt like she was back in the passionate state of their marriage, only more deeply.
If you or your partner has a problem expressing feelings, you are not alone. Many people struggle with this problem, especially during times of stress. You can learn to cultivate more intimacy in your marriage by learning to simply and lovingly state what is on your mind, and, often, just making the effort will make a big difference to your spouse.