5 Ways to Help Your Partner Understand How You’re Feeling

You want your significant other to understand how you’re feeling, but they seem to be allergic to your frustration. Here’s how to share emotions in a productive way.

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Couples may be familiar with this common conflict cycle: One person feels overwhelmed and gets annoyed because they feel their partner isn't giving them the support they need. Perhaps that overwhelmed person sounds irritated, so their partner thinks they're yelling at them and they either try to get away (think: scrolling their phone or going for a run) or defend themselves ("Here we go again"). In the end, both partners feel unfairly criticized and blamed.

In my years of counseling a number of straight cisgender couples, I've seen that men and women often have different approaches toward emotional discussions in their relationships with one another. In my experience, my female clients are more likely to bring up issues and believe that having a conversation will make them feel better while their male partners tend to be put off by this approach. They have a gut fear of their partner getting upset and worry they'll end up being seen as "the problem."

Decades of research on straight, married couples show that husbands are stressed by their wives' negative emotions. The same dynamic plays out in LGBTQ couples, too, when one person is more stressed by conflict than the other. Heart rates rise, adrenaline surges, and fight-or-flight mode takes over.

This type of reaction was helpful long ago when humans were hunters, but it's not an ideal scenario in relationships. When men react to their partner's distress as a moment of emotional survival, women end up feeling alone and unsupported. He says, "If you'd calm down, I'd talk to you," and she says, "If you'd talk to me, I would calm down." If you've experienced this disconnect, consider these strategies you can each use to change it.

Lead With Vulnerability

When you want to feel heard, sharing a vulnerable emotion like sadness is much more effective than going on the attack. Johanna and Sean were typical of many couples I see in therapy. She felt she shouldered the lion's share of family responsibilities. "I need some support," she said, her eyes moist with tears. "I have a full-time job, two little kids, a dog, a house, and a difficult mother who lives 10 minutes away. Why is everything always on me?"

Her tone had become angry, and Sean looked tense. If he could have tuned her out by playing with his phone or watching sports, he might have. But since he was stuck in a therapist's office, he tried to cope by defending himself: "What do you mean, everything's on you? I'm working nonstop too." I tried to help Johanna express her frustrations without focusing on complaints. As she got better at asking for support rather than voicing disappointment in him, Sean paid closer attention because he wasn't trying to protect himself.

Listen for Emotional Needs and Respond

Tune in to your partner's emotions to better understand each other—and what might be driving their upset feelings. My patient Sean had to work on building his own "emotional-engagement muscles." His challenge was to recognize Johanna's request for support before she got angry.

Typically, men are socialized to "fix" problems, but simply responding to Johanna's request for help was a way for Sean to fix the most important problem in front of them. I told him, "That edge in her voice is your clue that she needs you to move toward her, not away."

When he reached out his hand and asked, "How can I help?" or said, "Sorry things are so tough," he was amazed at what a powerful effect it had and how it stopped their usual cycle. Simply acknowledging your partner's struggles can begin to bridge the gap between you.

Make Room for Each Other’s Needs

Sometimes, when we need help, we can get tunnel vision and momentarily forget our partner's perspective. If your partner has been at work all day and tries to relax when they get home, they're not your worst enemy. They're a tired person who is trying to fit in a bit of self-care.

But if you're feeling stretched to your limit, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that they're selfish or clueless, rather than see that they're struggling, too. Instead, try to think about what changes you could make in your busy lives so that both of you can get more of your needs met.

Really talking to each other about what works for you and what doesn't really matters, too. Aim to have these conversations when you're both calm rather than when you're feeling stressed. That way, you can focus on hearing each other and collaborating on solutions.

Keep Tweaking the Division of Labor

"Who does what" is one of the most persistent sources of conflict among couples with young kids. Partners who feel their split is fair have higher levels of trust and warmth, and mothers of little ones often feel most angry when they believe the family burdens aren't shared equally.

One of my patients, Amy, blurted a familiar complaint to her husband, Jeff: "Why can't you see what needs to be done and just do it? You feel like it's enough to ask me to give you a task. Sometimes I feel like you are another kid!" That stung Jeff. As we talked about it, Amy admitted that she didn't actually think he was a shirker, and realized it wasn't helpful to call him a child.

I suggested that the more helpful approach was to build on each of their strengths. We agreed that Amy's role as their family organizational expert was a job and that if she happened to be better at it, then Jeff should pick up some other time-consuming family tasks. When he said he'd take over all the bill paying and cook on the weekends, they ended up feeling better.

Remember That You’re a Team

Even when you can't meet each other's needs or aren't communicating well, your partner is still your friend. It's natural to get frustrated when they're misreading your signals, but you both need to step up and engage. You both need to express feelings without blowing up or shutting down. That effort will be much more successful if you keep in mind that deep down, both of you have good intentions and want each other to be happy.

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