For some people, opening up about emotions can be difficult. This is primarily due to socialization in and out of families.
While some associate this issue with males, people of both sexes can suffer from a low ‘emotional IQ’. This means they don’t know the important differences and relationships between emotions and thoughts.
They may even be unable to accurately identify and name their emotions. These individuals may instead use common euphemisms such as, “I feel good” or “I feel bad about this.”
Unfortunately, this difficulty expressing emotions can cause a great deal of pain and frustration for their partners. They may not understand why their partner is silent. They notice their partner struggling emotionally but not putting those feelings into words, and their mind starts racing, “What’s going on? Why is my partner so distant? Did I do something wrong?”
This can put partners at odds with one another – even if the root of that silence had nothing to do with the relationship in the first place.
Understand the Impact on Your Partner
First, I want to go a little deeper into how your silence can harm your partner and your relationship.
When one partner is silent, the other often may try to fill that silence. He or she will create a story about what the partner is thinking.
Unfortunately, this story is usually inaccurate in terms of the silent partner’s reality. The individual draws on their own relationship fears (especially unconscious fears) to create the story.
Abandonment and being overwhelmed or smothered are the two most common fears. So, for example, if abandonment is your greatest relationship fear, your partner’s brain might start imagining that the silence means that you plan to leave them.
Even if you don’t plan to leave the relationship, your partner may experience your withdrawal as abandonment. This can leave your partner feeling vulnerable, and they may begin to withdraw from you.
Or your partner may become angry. In an effort to create any sort of response other than silence, your partner may “poke the bear,” attempting to provoke you into a fight. Anything to get you to open up about what’s going on to alleviate that nagging fear that you are leaving.
Tips for the Silent Partner
If you are the quiet one in the relationship, you could consider how your silence impacts your partner.
You may be trying to protect your partner from your feelings. You’ll figure things out in your head on your own, sparing your partner the trouble.
But the reality is your silence has the opposite effect. It will cause your partner anxiety and confusion. Anger and pain.
Open and transparent communication reduces your partner’s anxiety. And it can mean fewer fights.
All partners have a fear of revealing themselves if they don’t feel safe enough. Each partner has personal responsibility for creating safety in the relationship, first by self-soothing and then helping their partner.
It’s like on an airliner: ‘In the event of loss of pressure in the cabin, put the drop-down oxygen mask first on yourself and then assist another passenger.'”
Your partner will feel safer in the relationship and more connected to you if you express your emotions in words. This means taking a risk and sharing your inner world.
Be Brave, Express Your Feelings
Let’s say you are having trouble at work. You worried about how you’ll provide for your family if you lose your job. You don’t want to be judged for the perceived failure.
So, you withdraw. When your partner asks what’s up, you try to numb your anxiety, maybe play a video game, watch TV, or peruse your Facebook feed.
Remember, your partner won’t have any idea you are trying to protect them. Instead, they will simply see that you are withdrawing from the relationship.
But this time, you decide to take the risk and open up.
You say, “I’m worried about rumors that jobs are being cut. There’s a meeting today, and I’m concerned they’ll announce lay-offs and I’ll be included. I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens.”
Now your partner doesn’t have to create a story to figure out what’s going on. Instead, you will likely find that your open and transparent communication results in a loving alliance.
Often, you’ll receive physical affection. Words of comfort. And you can work together to consider possible solutions to the problem.
Doesn’t that sound a lot better than a fight? And you now have someone to go to for support – no matter which way things go.
When you push past your fears of rejection or criticism, you will feel more connected to your partner. And your partner will feel more connected to you – and calmer about the relationship in general.
You’ll be a part of a team, instead of having to go it alone.
What If You’re the One Struggling with a Silent Partner?
If you’re the one who is suffering from your partner’s silence, you have an equal responsibility for this relationship. Your ‘stretch’ would be to dialogically request, without expectations, a behavior change you may need (for your relationship even more than for yourself).
Gently share how much you’d like to hear what’s going on. Express how it helps you to feel more connected and calmer in the relationship to hear what’s going on in his or her mind.
Continue to ‘invite’ (instead of defensively criticizing or demanding) your partner to change and meet your need.
Still Have Trouble Connecting? Seek Help
Imago Relationship Education helps both partners to transform this and every conflict into deepening connection, healing and growth, primarily by teaching an extraordinary, advanced way of safely communicating about emotionally ‘tough stuff’.
Like all of these tips, and other relationship communication problems, all partners will experience some fear. The solution is to have the courage and wisdom to go through the fear and do the next right thing.
This may include seeking help, from your partner or a competent specialist in Couples Therapy, like at the Houston Center for Marriage & Family Relationships.
It’s not always easy to open up, especially if your silence is a behavior pattern you’ve used to protect yourself since childhood. The silent partner can learn how to communicate in an open and transparent way. And the other partner can learn how to create a safe space for their partner to open up.
In an IMAGO “Getting the Love You Want” Couples Workshop, you’ll learn relationship skills and communication tools that support your connection with your partner. And if you need to delve deeper, you can move forward together with a fully vetted professional specialist in Couples Therapy.
When you open up and allow your partner to support you, and you both take turns doing this as often as possible, you’re co-creating a stronger, deeper, and happier relationship.