"Opening Up to My Partner Makes Me Feel Worse"
4 tips to help a partner put their empathy into words.
Posted November 18, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Reluctance to open up about failures, disappointments, and conflicts, because a partner makes it worse, may short-circuit a relationship. Many caring and supportive partners do not know what to say, so they play the devil’s advocate, tell a person what to do, or point out a person’s missteps. This may not be what a person needs in the moment.
A person who is struggling with a problem typically wants to be understood. When a person’s feelings are recognized, he or she feels less alone in the predicament and more connected to the partner who “gets it.” This is soothing and comforting.
Although it sounds simple, it can be confusing. Providing advice and pointing out where a person went wrong may feel like “helping,” so a partner may be clueless. Four tips may assist a partner whose heart is in the right place.
First, a partner needs to know that diagnosing and fixing a loved one’s issues may not help him or her. A person usually feels empowered and strong when able to solve his or her own problems. Yet heightened emotions can deter creative problem solving, so an effective way to assist is to allow a person to debrief without interruption. Let him or her “get it out.” A partner’s ability to listen and suspend his or her judgment until fully understanding how the person feels is crucial.
Second, a partner may try listening for a feeling when a person is talking about an issue. Focusing on detecting a feeling in place of deciphering the details, may allow a partner the opportunity to empathize. For example, Lucy is upset about a colleague who accused her of being a “bad friend.” Instead of worrying about the specifics of every word that was exchanged, Mike thinks about the effort Lucy puts into her friendships and senses how much it hurts her to be called the opposite. Mike says, “You are so hurt. I would be too. It seems so unfair.” Lucy feels understood, less alone, and close to Mike who resonates with how she feels.
Third, a partner may try identifying and validating the person’s feeling:
- “You are so angry. You have every right to be.”
- “You are really disappointed. I get it. I would be too.”
- “You are so upset. I do not know why, but I want to understand. What is it?”
- “You are overwhelmed. It is a lot. How can I help?”
Often a partner worries about identifying the wrong feeling, however, this may help the person distinguish and specify what he or she is actually feeling. For example, Rick says to Sally, “You are so angry about the decision. I get it.” Sally pauses and reflects and says, “Actually, I’m not angry, I’m just really sad I didn’t get approved.”
Rick then empathizes with the loss Sally feels about a missed opportunity. “It’s got to be so disappointing. You really wanted that grant. You care so much about helping. I’m so sorry.”
Fourth, ask the person, “What would help?” Perhaps it is finding the Kleenex box or sitting with the person for a moment. Allowing the person to identify what would help is conscientious and respectful.
The benefit of these techniques is that a partner is not required to take a side or get involved in the nitty-gritty of the issue. His or her only task is to listen and understand. Because most people have felt disappointed, sad, angry, overwhelmed, and frustrated at some point in life, resonating with a person’s feeling state should not be terribly difficult. If a partner exhibits deficits in recognizing a feeling because it is different from how he or she may feel in that situation, a lack of empathy may exist. If this is the case, counseling may be necessary.
The situation may intensify if the negative feelings a person experiences are due to a partner’s actions or words. In this scenario, the partner, who does not want to be the cause of any discontent, may be defensive. This is understandable. Nobody wants to be the source of hurt regarding a loved one. But it happens. Fully comprehending how actions or words hurt a person is exceptionally important in repairing a rift in a relationship and protecting closeness and trust. Everyone has selfish moments, but a partner who is able to recognize, own, and make amends may be successful at sustaining the trust.
For example, Mel’s partner, Tim, helps her edit a proposal. He promises her it is perfect. Yet after a final review, Mel discovers multiple grammatical errors. Disappointed and hurt that Tim is careless with something precious to her, Mel confronts him. Tim is irate. How dare she confront him when he is trying to help? Yet, after some thought, Tim realizes he edited Mel’s proposal while watching a game. As painful as it is, he recognizes he may have been distracted. He apologizes to Mel and fully owns his selfish moment. He expresses a clear understanding of the hurt and distrust it caused. He asks her how he can regain her trust. She requests a sushi dinner without the presence of football. Tim laughs and agrees.
Many well-meaning and loving people feel pressure to fix a loved one’s problems. This may take them in the wrong direction. Teaching, giving advice, or pointing out flaws, may not adequately support a person in emotional distress. Listening for a feeling, honoring the feeling, and asking how to help are usually successful strategies when supporting an individual in emotional pain. The person may glean insight on his or her own which may be powerful and life-changing. Empathize, empower, encourage—and then laugh and love.