Each time your partner starts to share with you, whether it be their thoughts or feelings about themselves or about anything else, it’s an opportunity to increase your connection and strengthen your relationship. It’s also a time when many of us make common mistakes that instead gradually erode the very foundation of our relationship: our feelings of closeness and trust. Here are 5 common mistakes people make when their partner shares, with suggestions for what to do instead.
If these suggestions are too hard, don’t be discouraged. You’re far from alone. For many people, couple therapy provides a necessary level of support for making changes like these.
1. Say nothing
Perhaps the worst mistake we can make is to zone out, ignore, or freeze when our partner shares. Regardless of how we actually feel, this will inadvertently send back the message “I don’t care about you” and “You’re not all that important to me.”
Consider saying: “I really want to understand you better and yet I’m having a hard time focusing and taking you in. Can you give me time (however much you’ll need) to clear my head so I can really be here with you?” It’s essential to make time for this later. If they’re in the way, share your own interfering feelings with your partner: “I really want to understand you better, but something inside me is in the way. I feel numb (frozen, awkward, overwhelmed, inadequate, …). It’s not that I don’t care about you.”
2. Argue with or criticize your partner’s thoughts and feelings
This is another obvious mistake in relationships, yet one many partners often make regardless. It’s normal to sometimes be overcome by our own strong emotional reactions to our partner, and become reactive, angry, and judgmental. Our words and emotions can flood out of us with little or no forethought, doing damage we may not know how to repair.
Consider saying: “Wow, I’m sorry I had such a strong, negative reaction there. I really want to come back to this to understand and care for your thoughts and feelings, but it’s too hard for me right now because something big is coming up for me. I’d like to create space for us both to have our own, equally valid and important perspectives around this. Can we come back to this when we both feel calm enough to work on understanding what this means for both of us?” The key thing here is to keeping coming back to disagreements again and again when you’re calmer, as long as it takes until you both feel completely understood. Sweeping differences under the rug only causes them be dirtier when they come up again.
3. Share back your own thoughts and feelings
This mistake is easy to miss, as we might reasonably expect that showing interest in our partner’s topic and sharing back is a positive way to increase connection. But if we immediately respond to our partner’s sharing with sharing of our own, we may be unintentionally sending the message “I don’t want to care about you, I only want you to care about me.”
Consider saying: “Tell me more about that….” “Is there more you want me to understand about how you feel about this?” “Am I really getting what this means to you?” before asking: “Are you ready to shift gears and hear my perspective?”
4. Try to make your partner feel better
If your partner is sharing their distress, it’s natural to want to make them feel better. However, the way we do this by trying to “fix” or “reassure” often backfires when we may inadvertently send the message “I want the vulnerable parts of you to go away and not bother me.” In trying to make our partner feel better, we may actually trigger them to feel dismissed and abandoned.
Consider saying: “I’m here for you. I’m glad you’re sharing this with me. I like being the one you come to and share your fears and tears with.” Reach out to hold and comfort your partner with touch, if they’re receptive. Speak slowly, softly, and with pauses to create an atmosphere of safety and space for your to partner to share more. Trust that it is your emotional, caring presence, and not what you can do, that your partner needs the most.
5. Ask logical questions about your partner’s vulnerable feelings
This is another difficult-to-spot mistake, as it may seem a positive move to try to gather more information and understanding for your partner’s feelings. However, when we respond to our partner’s feelings with curiosity that is intellectual or analytical, we may be missing the boat by inadvertently sending the message “I’m cold and judging toward the softer, more vulnerable parts of you.”
Consider saying: “I feel honored to see this vulnerable side of you. Will you come closer, and share more? I care about your feelings, and I want to get you emotionally.”
As a partner or spouse, the best thing you can do when your partner shares is to create an atmosphere of emotional caring and openness that encourages them to share more vulnerably and deeply, until your partner feels comfortable sharing the very heart of their longings and fears with you.
It’s easy to inadvertently respond in ways that erode the close and trusting relationship that many of us start out with, or begin with high hopes to achieve. Know that even if you’ve experienced years or decades of distance and disconnection, the desire to be deeply understood and cared for never goes away.
If you are attempting to change your responses when old patterns have been in place for years or decades, it’s important not to expect an initial, positive reaction in return. Habits are difficult to change, requiring persistent, daily effort over weeks and months. Give your spouse or partner permission not to trust this softer, more caring side of you until it’s become established, and worthy of their trust.