When Your Partner Won’t Say How They Feel: 5 Break-Through Tips
A mismatch in emotional expression is commonly described in therapy. But the answer is not to press your quieter partner into being the same as you. Try this approach instead.
“My partner is as closed as a clam,” my client said.
“He has trouble expressing his emotions so he doesn’t say anything. It drives me crazy. I want him to open up to me.”
“Why is it so important to you to hear what he’s feeling? I asked. “What are you hoping to hear?”
“I want to talk about us,” she said, acknowledging she wanted more assurance about their relationship. When her partner failed to “open up” her anxiety escalated.
So Tell Me How You Feel!
Therapists hear this struggle often. Plenty of research shows it’s healthy to talk about feelings — that even being able to name a feeling can reduce the intensity of it and help us to better manage it.
But when one partner is (way) more up for it than the other it can cause anxiety and tension. It can be hugely frustrating to be with a “silent” partner when you like to talk. However the reality is some people find it extremely difficult — even painful — to express emotions and they should not be made to feel like less-evolved humans because they do.
You don’t need to know the entire contents of your partner’s heart and mind at any given moment, on any given subject. You might be shocked if you did. Or bored. Or something unpleasant. So before you wind up with another round of questions, check out these tips.
1. Rate your own Emotional Expression.
Rate your ability (and that of your partner) to express your emotions (your EE score). Use a scale of 1–5. (1 = finds it difficult to express emotion; 5 = very open in talking about feelings.) Notice the difference between the two of you AND know that it’s fine — possibly even healthy — to be different.
2. Ask WHY you want to know (how they feel).
Before asking what your partner feels, be honest with yourself about WHY you want to know? Asking your partner how they feel is often less about them and more about relieving our own insecurities through talking to someone. That’s not fair. Your partner should not be badgered to reveal their feelings just to bring your anxiety down. So check in on your reasons and make sure they are not fully motivated by your own insecurity or worries. Are you thinking about your partner’s needs too?
3. Ask WHY your partner may be quiet?
It’s just possible your stream of questions, or those of a former partner, or even a parent, have hammered them into silence. Or their early environments meant they never learned emotional skills or language. Just saying.
4. Read the room.
Talking is not the only way to identify your partner’s feelings. In fact, it is not the most reliable one. If you want the inside oil, check out their behaviour. A person’s body language, how they react, and what they choose to do, are hugely revealing. Pay particular attention if you notice a CHANGE in a person’s behaviour because that may be indicative of a change in their emotional state.
5. Clock their behaviour towards YOU.
Rather than trying to access your partner’s feelings, consider how you are treated in the relationship. Are they loving and kind? Considerate? Do they bring energy to the relationship? Do they want to spend time with you? Those may be bigger clues than what they say.
Remember words don’t come easy to some — and they come way too easily to others, who might not be who you want (or should) to spend too much time with.
So beware of judging a person solely on their ability to express themselves: look first within. And keep your thoughts to yourself while you do it :)
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