A Better Way to Think About Your Partner’s Feelings
Partners often dismiss feelings in intimate relationships
In the course of my work in couples counseling, I often hear one partner respond to something the other partner says in one or more of these ways.
- I don’t think that’s a fair assessment
- I did not
- Yes, but you…
- It wasn’t last week, it was the week before
- Your problem is you’re too (sensitive, uptight, controlling, etc.)
- I wouldn’t have said/done [x, y, z] if you hadn’t said/done [a, b, c]
- I guess I’m just a terrible person
- You’re being (ridiculous, paranoid, irrational, etc.)
- That’s just your opinion
The problem from a couples therapy perspective
This is just a partial list of course, but do any of these sound familiar? There are specific problems with each of these statements from a couples therapy perspective, but they have one main thing in common: all the above responses miss the point.
You might wonder, “What do you mean? You haven’t even specified what was said that provokes the responses above, how can you know they miss the point?
I know it because they all indicate the listener is not paying attention to the only thing that really matters, which is how their partner is feeling in that moment, therefore none of these responses speak to the feeling.
This is the #1 thing that goes wrong with communication between couples. One partner tries to share a feeling with the other (which may be stated as a feeling, a memory, a perception, a perspective, an interpretation, or even as a fact), and the other partner responds not to the feeling but to the words.
This is because most people have a hearing problem. Not a physical one, but an emotional one. When your partner shares something with you, they are sharing the only thing they have–their emotional reality. Feelings are emotional realities, and people experience even objective realities, like a sunset, through their emotions.
Many people would say, “Sunsets are beautiful.” But perhaps you are married to a person who was on the beach watching a sunset when their cell phone rang and they were told someone they loved had died. Your partner, then, may experience sunsets quite differently than most other people, and for perfectly understandable reasons.
This is always the case. When your partner speaks to you, they are always speaking from the only position they can speak from, which is their unique perspective, based on their own experiences and physiological wiring. So are you, by the way. And feelings and perspectives always make sense when you understand what is behind them. Most of the time partners don’t get to this understanding, because non-productive, defensive, critical responses keep each other shut down.
When your partner is telling you something, they are trying to share with you a piece of who they are, a glimpse into how the world looks from their unique perspective. Neither of you is in the habit of commissioning a research study on the absolute rightness or wrongness of your perspective before you share it with the other. And you shouldn’t have to. You both need to be able to share your perspectives, feelings, reactions, assessments, and opinions with one another in real time, as you simply live life together. Which brings us to how the bulleted statements above miss the point.
Adventures in missing the point
None of them address the feelings (the emotional reality) of the person they are responding to. Let’s look at exactly how each response misses the point.
I don’t think that’s a fair assessment
The speaker has just shared their perspective or feeling. Perspectives and feelings aren’t “fair” or “not fair” any more than you can smell a number. The response above makes the speaker’s statement into something it isn’t and couldn’t be–a statement of objective reality, to be evaluated and challenged. In doing this, it ignores what’s most important, which is where the speaker is coming from. Your partner did not choose you to go through life with thinking they’d have to spend their life proving to you the validity of their emotional reality. (You don’t like having to do this either, by the way.)
I did not
Argumentative. The speaker has shared something they have perceived was done that hurt their feelings. This response ignores the fact that the speaker is hurting. It’s not about whether something was done or not done, it’s about the fact that someone is hurting and needs their partner to hear that and be there for them.
Yes, but you…
Even if this is true, it’s defensive and dismisses what needs to be the topic, which is the emotional reality of the speaker.
It wasn’t last week, it was the week before
Quibbling. In the words of Jesus, this response “strains out a gnat, but swallows a camel” (Matthew 23:24). It insists on complete accuracy with regard to something that doesn’t matter, while completely neglecting the real issue the partner is trying to bring up.
Your problem is you’re too (sensitive, uptight, controlling, etc.)
Defensive and critical. Defensive responses are always an attempt to change the subject and deflect responsibility. If you complain to your partner that they hurt you, the fact that you also may have hurt them in the past is irrelevant in that moment, though it may well be something they need to discuss with you at another time. After all, you are entitled to your perspectives and feelings as well. But in a moment when your partner is trying to tell you how they are feeling, that is the subject. Don’t change the subject.
I wouldn’t have said/done [x, y, z] if you hadn’t said/done [a, b, c]
Again, defensive. Even if your perception that the other person “started it” were objectively true, this response still avoids accepting personal responsibility for one’s own behaviors. If your partner is in a terrible mood and yells at you, that’s their screwup, but it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for behaving properly.
I guess I’m just a terrible person
Dr. John Gottman, on whose research much of my work is based, would say this response vies for the position of victim. In an argument, each partner believes one is the victim and one is the perpetrator, and everyone knows the perpetrator is the “bad guy” so partners each try to cast themselves as the victim. This kind of response attempts to undermine the validity of the feelings being shared by assuming the position of the ultimate victim.
You’re being (ridiculous, paranoid, irrational, etc.)
Dismissive (and judgmental). If you use this kind of response, you get to throw out one of these accusations, put everything back on your partner, and don’t feel obligated to grant any legitimacy to their perspective.
That’s just your opinion
Which means…it doesn’t matter?
All of the responses above miss the point by focusing more on the words being said than on the opinions and feelings being expressed, as if the words are the point.
It’s not personal
Thinking of your partner’s feelings and perspectives as objective statements to be evaluated, judged, argued with, dismissed, or minimized, is a dead-end. If you struggle with communication in your relationship, it’s very likely it is characterized by the kinds of responses I’ve highlighted above.
So change how you think about your partner’s negative feelings. They are not judgments of you and your value as a human, or partner, or parent. They are not objective statements that are either true or false and your job is to prove them false so you can “win.”
Think instead of negative feelings (and, really, all feelings) as being events–things that are happening to your partner. Think of your own feelings as things that are happening to you. After all, do you get up every morning and say, “Let’s see, what am I going to feel today? I could feel happy, sad, angry, frustrated, jealous, lonely, discouraged, etc. Wow, so many, what will it be? I think I’ll be jealous today.” Or, “Today feels like a great day for some paranoia.”
Feelings happen. Sure there are things you can often do to try to maintain a positive attitude, but this just proves my point. If you’re trying to maintain a positive attitude, that’s because you’re feeling negative, which you did not choose.
So how better to think about feelings?
Feelings are like waves on the ocean
Waves are not the ocean, they are things that happen on the ocean. Some are large, some are smaller. Some develop very far from shore and some develop closer to shore. But the waves just are. Big waves aren’t better or worse than small waves on a moral level. You don’t say, “That was a huge wave — that gets to count as a real wave, but that smaller wave, that wave was stupid, irrational, pretending, not worthy of being called a wave.” Nor do you say, “Whoa, that wave was huge–clearly making something out of nothing.”
Waves just are.
They all develop on the ocean at some point, and they will all crash on the beach eventually. No wave is permanent.
There is no objective meaning to any wave. A huge wave can be a bummer for boats, but a delight for surfers. It all depends on your perspective.
In the same way, all emotions develop in consciousness at some point, and all will dissipate. Think of the happiest you’ve ever been. You aren’t that happy now! That “wave” dissipated, crashed into the shore. Nor are you the saddest you’ve ever been at this moment. That wave dissipated also. That’s what waves do.
Feelings do the same. No matter how strong they are, they all come and go. They are temporary. They happen, to you, to your partner, to everyone. Some are large and carry you away. Some are small and make little impact. But they all had a beginning and they will all have an ending. And you did not and cannot consciously choose any of them. Neither can your partner.
How to behave toward your partner in light of this
So why be defensive? Why take it personally? Why get upset, as if it means something about you personally? Why not, instead, when your partner is being rocked by a particularly turbulent wave, help your partner withstand the storm?
The worse the storm is, the more tumultuous the event that is happening to them, the more they need you to help them, to steady them, to communicate your reassuring presence, to hold their hand.
They need you to say not any of the counter-productive things above, but instead to say, “I know, this is a tough one. I hear you. I’ll do all I can not only to ride this out with you, but if there’s anything I can do that tends to trigger some of these waves for you, or make them more intense, you can count on me to try to be aware of it and stop it. I want to help make your journey over this unpredictable ocean called life to be as smooth as possible. I don’t want it to be any scarier, more painful, or harder than it has to be.” This is what your partner needs. And it’s what you need from your partner as well.
If your marriage or intimate relationship is struggling, if you are having communication problems, try understanding your partner’s feelings simply as their experience of reality. If they say, “I don’t feel supported around the house,” don’t make a list of everything you did around the house to prove their feeling is wrong. Say, “Wow, I’m really sorry to hear that. I love you and I was feeling like I’ve tried to do a lot this week, and yet here you are feeling unsupported. I want you to feel like I’m right here at your side. How can I be in your corner in that way?”
Say this and your partner may respond in any of the following ways:
- I need you to get the kids through bath time and bedtime.
- You know what, you’re right. You do a ton around the house, I’m just in a terrible place right now. I just need you to hold me.
- I’m not sure. Can I think about it and talk to you about it tomorrow?
- You’re right, you do a lot. I’m sorry I said it that way. What I need is for you to keep doing what you do, but just do it–don’t always ask me what needs to be done.
Similarly, if your partner says, “We never do fun things together anymore,” they don’t need to hear how you have kids now and you have responsibilities, or that you don’t have money. Try, “I love doing things with you and I know that’s important to you. I want to meet that need for you but sometimes feel overwhelmed with the kids and money concerns. Can you help me understand what kinds of things you’re thinking would be good for us to do so we can get them on the schedule and line up childcare?”
They might say:
- You’re right, I know it can’t be what it used to be but maybe if we just…
- I just miss having fun with you is all.
- Maybe it’s not the activities themselves so much as hearing that you still like being with me, that I make you happy, that you’re proud of me.
- Even if we could just plan one or two weekend getaways per year and I could have you all to myself, that would make a huge difference.
“But this isn’t realistic!”
You might say, “Dave, these are not realistic scenarios.” Maybe so. In relationships where partners have been dismissing and arguing with each others’ feelings and realities for a long time, these moments of real connection and conversation can seem like a pipe dream.
But how’s your current way of responding to your partner working for you and for them?
Waves on the ocean, baby, waves on the ocean!