Just as you’d pull back from a flame when you’re burned, you likely withdraw from your relationship when you partner upsets you. It’s common; it’s understandable; and it can be a big problem. While a temporary retreat can help couples approach conflict in a more constructive way, more prolonged ones are damaging. This is especially true when people expect their partner to read their minds and automatically respond with understanding and compassion. The result is often conflict that devolves into anger and greater misunderstandings.
I frequently see this problem in couples therapy: Linda pours her heart out to her husband, Brett, about feeling totally frustrated with a family situation. All she wants is for him to listen, and maybe to give her a hug. Brett, not wanting his wife to be so upset, explains exactly how she can fix the problem. Feeling judged rather than loved, she withdraws. She believes that he knows she needs to be comforted. He feels her giving him the cold shoulder, so he pulls back, too. Both are hurt and angry – feelings that eventually explode out of them in future conversations.
When I suggest that she explain to Brett what to say or do in response to her venting about her family, Linda strongly disagrees. She reasons that if he really loved her, he would understand her struggles and know what to do without prompting. For her, being fully loved means being fully understood. So, telling him what she needs feels unacceptable. To her, if she has to prompt him for a specific response then that response doesn’t count. Anyone who has ever been in a committed relationship knows what it’s like to want their partner to really understand them without ever having to say a word. But, love simply doesn’t work this way.
Loving partners accept that you are your own person and they value that person. They express love by showing a desire to know you better (as you change and evolve); an openness to accept you fully; and compassion to want to help you feel better or happier.
When a partner does not understand what you are going through or how to help, it’s essential to ask yourself if he or she wants to understand and wants to help. You need to respond from what you know deep in your heart, not from a defensive place. If the answer is “no,” it’s time to rethink your relationship. If the answer is “yes,” then acknowledge their love and try responding in a healthy way:
- Notice your desire to withdraw and your expectation that your partner will know your thoughts, feelings, and needs.
- Remind yourself that your partner has shown that he or she loves you – even if they sometimes misunderstand you and your needs. Reaffirm that you trust them to have your best interests at heart. (If your partner often has difficulty seeing beyond their own struggles to hear yours, then it might be time to consider couples therapy.)
- Clarify in your own mind what you want your partner to provide for you. For instance, you might want them to just listen (not give advice) when you vent about work or you might want them to just hold you after you feel rejected by friends. If you want advice at some point, you’ll want to ask for this, too.
- Try it out—tell your partner what you want before launching into whatever is on your mind. Then express yourself freely. You will likely find that you feel comforted and assured by your partner’s responses, and that guiding your partner means much less to you than you thought it would.
Here’s what I’ve seen in therapy over and over again: Redefining love as caring for each other, rather than being able to read each other’s minds, will free you to clearly say what you want and need from your partner. This will open the way for you to care for one another in a way that naturally nurtures love between you.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.