What are you not saying?
Couples Therapy in Bethesda, MD
As a couples therapist, one of the primary complaints that I hear is, “My partner never listens to me. Either we have the same arguments over and over again or he/she just completely shuts down and refuses to engage in the conversation.” Fortunately, most couples feel immense relief when I assure them that this is a problem that can be resolved relatively easily. And with the help of a variety of techniques that I have up my sleeve, in conjunction with a systemic overview of the patterns and cycles in their relationship, most are pleased to find that their communication quickly begins to improve.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Almost invariably, I discover that many of my client’s communication problems are rooted in thoughts and emotions that they do not feel comfortable disclosing to their partner. Sometimes it is clear in the beginning of treatment that this is an adaptive recourse since there isn’t an emotionally safe space in the relationship in which both partners can express sensitive concerns. But over time, as clients really begin doing the work of exploring their feelings, opening up in session, and becoming increasingly vulnerable with each other, I find that there sometimes develops a reluctance or hesitation toward being totally open and transparent with each other.
This time around, the motivation is different, though. Instead of withholding important thoughts and feelings because there isn’t a safe space in the relationship, they now refrain from disclosing because the relationship is finally in a good place and they don’t want to “rock the boat” or throw the relationship off track.
When this happens, I use it as an opportunity to emphasize clients’ progress by highlighting how far they have come as well as the necessary actions to maintain that momentum. The reality is that going along with the status quo and pretending that everything is fine can be almost as destructive as avoidance, stonewalling, or explosive arguments in the relationship. In any of those scenarios, the end result is the same: failure to allow your partner to see the complete you, which includes your full range of thoughts and emotions that subsequently influence your behaviors.
If you choose not to engage in open dialogue with your partner, not only is progress stifled, but you preclude the opportunity to know each other on a deeper level, to constructively work through difficult situations together, and to fortify the emotionally safe space that you are working so diligently to construct in your relationship. In contrast, if you allow space for the expression of both positive and negative thoughts and emotions and can trust that your vulnerability will be respected and valued, I guarantee that it will propel your relationship to a vastly better place than where you would find yourselves if you held back.
I know that at this point in the post, many of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Yeah okay, I’m sure you’re right, Shy, but doing that is a lot easier said than done.” And I completely agree with you. Depending on where you are in your relationship, being vulnerable and open about your thoughts and feelings may be utterly terrifying and may require an immense leap of faith. But I have a few quick solutions. To start with, you may find that opening up in therapy sessions is significantly easier than opening up at home because of the calming and mediating influence of a trained professional. Once that feels comfortable, I recommend starting with small divulgences and building from there. For example, instead of ignoring your partner’s hurtful side comment, perhaps you quietly express that it really hurt your feelings. Then, it’s your partner’s turn to respond appropriately and in a manner that encourages further dialogue. The conversation can then continue from there in a calm, empathic, and constructive way (tools learned in therapy can help ensure that this happens). By doing so, you two can engage in an exchange that requires effort from both parties to initiate and maintain.
My role as a therapist is to help couples get to a point where they enthusiastically tell me that communication between the two of them is now open, honest, and clear. The path there is not always easy, but my experience is that clients find the work very much worth it and are so much happier for engaging in the process.
If clear communication is also your end goal, I encourage you to think about the things that you may not be saying to your partner for the sake of maintaining the status quo in your relationship. Consider the impact that leaving these things left unsaid may be having on your personal and relationship satisfaction. And know that a healthier and happier way to engage with your partner is possible!
Shy Porter, MS, LGMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call or email her today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.