She Said, He Said: Getting guys to open up can be a challenge for both genders
August 6, 2018
Dear Lori and Jeff,
Since we've been together, my partner has become increasingly shut down. I'd really like him to be more open, and recently approached him about it. He said he's tried to share his feelings with me in the past, and I've judged him. I don't ever remember doing that, but there have been a few times where I thought he was just making excuses for not doing what he said he would do. I would never want to judge his real feelings. How can I support him in opening up again?
Feeling Shut Out
Dear Shut Out,
Lori: Many women want a partner who is emotionally open and willing to connect from a deeply authentic place. We want a powerful bond in which we know one another better than anyone else on the planet. Yet, in reality, vulnerability in our male partners can feel unnerving. We don't always have a willingness to believe that the strong, capable pillar in our world has fears, doubts and insecurities. This is particularly true when we're feeling vulnerable ourselves. We can discredit, invalidate and even shame our partners when their vulnerability feels threatening in some way to our well-being. Sadness about the death of a friend, for example, is often accepted while a lack of confidence in getting hired for a job may be harder to hear. There are some things we just don't want to believe — because if they are true, our lives may feel less secure.
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I invite you to explore the kind of openness you want from your partner, and understand that you do not get to pick and choose the emotions he shares. Reflect back on the feelings he expressed previously that you saw as excuses. What were your vulnerabilities that closed you off from being able to hear his?
Jeff: The masculine paradox has become a hot-button topic in recent years and is often the source of discord in relationships. As men, we're expected to be strong and stable, creating a place of safety and security for our partners. Add in the request of being emotionally open, vulnerable and expressive (which, by the way, we really do want) and we're left confused as to who you want us to be. Even if we're able to decipher the code of expectation, the fear still exists of our feelings being misunderstood. We dread the idea of being seen as weak or needy. If our partners project that on to us through judgment or invalidation, we might be reluctant to share them again. This is how men experience shame. If we associate expressing our feelings with being perceived as weak, the shame that gets triggered will surely cause a shutdown and ultimately prevent the openness you are looking for.
You say you'd never judge your partner's "real feelings" but how do you know which are real or contrived? In order for him to trust that his feelings are safe with you, you'll have to show him that you accept all aspects of his emotional experience — even if, at times, you may feel uncomfortable and even doubt their authenticity.
Lori and Jeff: It can often feel more risky for men to express their emotions. The most important message here is that vulnerability does not equal weakness, and we all have it. If you want a rich connection with your partner, you'll have to learn to manage your own in order to create a safer space for his.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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