Several minutes after I had asked my husband to skip the gym so we could go straight to a “Fall Fun Festival,” I could tell something wasn’t right. His answers to my questions were monosyllabic and devoid of warmth. I was frustrated that going to the gym was more important to him than spending time with me. “Are you mad at me?” I asked, feeling confused and annoyed. He said, “No, it’s fine,” and walked out the door to run some errands.
For a long time, a lot of our arguments looked this way—me probing for how he was feeling without revealing anything about my own emotional experience. Often, my husband would shut down even more after I asked him this question and our arguments stalled as I fumed and waited for him to own his feelings. I know he’s mad, but he’s not TELLING me he’s mad. This is CLEARLY all his fault. Why can’t he tell me how he feels?
There’s nothing wrong with checking in on how your partner is feeling (“What’s going on for you right now? You look angry”). The problem with asking your partner if he or she is mad at you is it sends the message that (1) his or her emotional experience is the only one that’s responsible for whatever issue has arisen, and that (2) if he or she is not mad at you, there is no point to further discussion. It also allows the questioner to avoid owning his or her own feelings.
Ultimately, whether your partner shares his or her emotional experience with you is up to your partner. Many people struggle to put words to their feelings for a variety of valid and sometimes painful reasons. However, if you find yourself constantly wondering how your partner is feeling in tense moments, you may want to try some of the following suggestions:
- Acknowledge that people process emotions in different ways and at different speeds. While one partner may want to talk things out immediately, another might need more time. Both ways of coping are valid. Sometimes, the best time to talk about emotions is after the intensity of the moment has passed.
- Check in with yourself about how you’re feeling in the moment. Do you feel distant from your partner? Confused? Alone? Sad? Do you feel increasingly angry or annoyed the more distant and alone you feel? By sharing these feelings with your partner, you can increase his or her sense of safety by showing that you are open to also being vulnerable and honest with your feelings. You can also work together to understand what’s going on between the two of you. Maybe your partner isn’t mad at you and is actually exhausted, stressed, or was reminded of something else he or she is angry about. Either way, telling your partner you feel distant lets him or her realize how his or her own mood is impacting you and the relationship. This is much more productive than accusing your partner of having a feeling he or she may or may not be having.
- Assume your partner’s feelings and reactions make sense and approach the situation from a place of curiosity. The idea here is to better understand and connect to your partner.
It took a long time for me to find the words to say, “Hey, I’m feeling really distant from you right now. It’s a lonely, sad way to feel, and the more distant I feel, the more I start to feel angry.” It feels risky and vulnerable to approach someone when it seems like he or she is avoiding you, but the potential payoff for vulnerability is connection. I found when I approached how I felt, my partner was much more likely to meet me with his own emotional experience—whether he was actually angry at me or feeling a variety of other ways.
If you need help communicating your feelings, contact a qualified therapist.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maria Saavedra, PhD, therapist in Rochester, New York
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