One of the most common hiccups that people in long-term relationships experience is their ability to communicate.
This is never as pronounced as when you’re trying to communicate about a problem, either within your relationship, or outside of it.
Your partner calls you to vent about a client; you’re talking about how aggravating your sister is. You just want someone to talk to about whatever your current struggle in life is, and yet, you often feel as though bringing the issue to your partner makes it worse than before. You try to open up about a boundary they are crossing, and their defenses rise. You want to open up about some doubts you’re having, but they panic and pull away.
This is to be expected.
First, your partner’s proximity to you decreases their tolerance to your stress. They’re also more sensitive than others would be, because you really have the rest of their life in your hands.
The problem isn’t that we can’t share with our partners how we really feel.
The problem is when we don’t enlist one magic phrase to help us do it:
“Do you want me to help you fix this, or do you want me to help you feel this?”
This will pretty much clear up the vast majority of communication-based conflicts that you experience.
It will help your partner feel seen, and understood.
More than anything though, it will help you accomplish what you really set out to accomplish.
When you understand that some people vent for advice, and others vent for a release, you can begin to see why it’s upsetting for someone who just wants to open up about their feelings to be met with a laundry list of potential strategies to fix it. In that moment, it’s not about fixing it, it’s about acknowledging an emotion.
Similarly, if all you ever do is vent about negative feelings but don’t ever strategize a way to resolve the core problem, the issue perpetuates.
Sometimes, we need our feelings seen. Sometimes, we need our problems solved. Our partners are typically willing to do either, but first they have to understand what you desire out of the conversation.
If you start by saying that you’re just dealing with some emotions that you want to express but don’t necessarily need advice on, they’ll be much more inclined to simply sit back and empathize. That validation will help you process the feeling more completely, and you’ll be able to move on.
Likewise, if you start by saying that you want their advice to resolve an issue either in your personal life or in your relationship, your partner enters the conversation thinking less about how you feel and more about how to come up with a solution to the inherent issue at hand.
Neither is wrong.
It’s just that when we need our feelings validated, we don’t need to hear how we could improve our situation. Likewise, when we need a problem solved, we don’t need someone saying: “Yeah, I hear you,” but not proposing any way to fix it.
Our partners are there both to help us fix, and to help us feel.
However, it is up to us to communicate what we need, and when — and then to offer the same grace to them.