Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

Ten Conversation Stoppers that Sabotage Intimacy

How you respond to your partner's distresses determines your closeness

Your partner comes to you in a state of distress. He or she is vulnerable, conflicted, and distressed about something. Perhaps it is about an external situation with a friend or coworker, or some internal stressor. It could also be an upset about your relationship. Whatever the issue, it is important in the moment and asks for resolution.  

If you want your partner to open up to you, express emotions, and to feel better when your conversation is over, you must respond correctly. That means you have the interest, commitment, and skills to keep your partner open and sharing until that goal is accomplished.

Too often, the opposite happens. Whether you’ve just had a bad day, are uncomfortable with the subject, or never learned how to successfully react, you may inadvertently silence your partner with the wrong response. Those conversation stoppers are not only likely to shut down communication, but will make further attempts at connecting less likely.

Most committed partners do not intend to hurt or stop their lovers from sharing vulnerable distresses. They may not even realize they are shutting them down. When they realize what they are doing, they are often embarrassed and can see how they might also cease being vulnerable on the other end of the same behaviors.

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Though the following typical conversation stoppers may be somewhat uncomfortable to examine, try to honestly evaluate yourself and ask your partner to do the same. Once you recognize that you may be inadvertently doing them, you may find it easier to stop.

You are not alone. These intimacy destroying responses are so common that most couples use them regularly without even noticing their damaging effects. As you go through them, some may appear to overlap with others, but all have the same result; your partner will emotionally withdraw from you over time.

Once you have asked each other when and where you are both guilty of these shutting-down behaviors, you can add your own examples to the list and begin eliminating them from your interactions. When you do, your communication patterns with your partner will dramatically increase in caring, scope, and success.

Conversation Stopper #1 – Blaming your partner for the problem

When intimate partners talk about something embarrassing, they are usually looking for understanding and support. That doesn’t necessarily mean you must agree with what they are feeling, but are readily willing to listen and encourage them to continue sharing. Some typical blaming conversation stoppers may sound like:

“What was your responsibility here?”

“You’ve done this so many times; you’d think you’d learn by now not to get yourself in this kind of mess.”

“Why do you keep making yourself vulnerable like this? You’re way too sensitive.”

These kinds of responses are likely to make partners feel like they are kicked when they are already down, and you’re the new cause of their pain or embarrassment.

How a ”Blame Response” looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I’m so disgusted with myself. I took off those ten pounds and they’re slowly creeping up again.”

Blame Responder: “Honey, I’m sad to say this, but it’s your own fault. You keep making promises you don’t keep, and you’re just losing credibility with yourself. You keep telling me that you’re going to keep it off this time, but you give in to your own pressure. When are you just going to get this done and stop complaining about it?

Partner seeking support: “Now I feel even worse. I can’t even talk to you about it. It’s always ‘what did I do wrong?” I’m sorry I even asked.”

Blame response: “Well, I’m not going to keep listening to the same bull shit every time you fail. Either make it work or stop talking about it.”

Conversation Stopper #2 – Erasing

There are many ways to stop your partner from continuing to talk that fall under the title of erasing him or her. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but the effect is the same; your partner will feel that you’re just not interested or unavailable, but unwilling to be honest about it. You might stop their sharing by just being completely silent, without emotion or response, while you continue to do what you were already doing.

Another way would be to casually or obviously change the subject without recognizing that your partner has reached out to you with something personal and significant.

“Hey, not now, babe. This is my favorite TV show. It just can’t be that important to have to talk right this minute. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, okay?”

If a put-off response is consistent, the often rejected partner will soon stop asking. If you repeatedly promise your partner to talk about the issue at another time, but never initiate, you are essentially being passive/aggressive. Try to correct that defeating behavior.

How an “Erase Response” looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support? “I really want to talk to you about our budget. I’m worried we’re spending more than we make and I want to stop the bleeding before we’re in trouble.”

Erase responder: “(no response)”

Partner seeking support: “Will you please talk to me about this? I can’t stand your just not saying anything. You always do that when you don’t want to fix something. Please talk to me.”

Erase responder: “I’m thinking.”

Partner seeking suport: “Thinking about what?”

Erase responder: “Just thinking.”

Partner seeking support: “Are you thinking about what I’ve asked you to talk about?”

Erase responder: “No, actually I was involved in this TV program and really wanting to watch it”

Partner seeking support: “What does that have to do with what I’m talking about?

Erase responder: “(No response)”

Conversation Stopper #3 – Ignoring emotions and superficially solving the problem

Many emotional issues are confusing to the person expressing them and are not said clearly when the conversation begins. It may take a while and some interested questioning on the part of a committed partner to get to the root of the problem. Too quick of a response and a need to solve the issue at hand may imply that the receiving partner is just not interested or has no patience for the issue, or for the person.

Painful emotions are hard for most people to listen to, especially when expressed passionately or from a place of neediness. If the distress is expressed as a challenge to the other partner, it may overwhelm him or her. The standard response is to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. “You don’t need to get this complicated. We can solve this easily.” Or, “I can’t help you if I have to listen to so much dramatic back story. Can you just get to the point?”

 Unfortunately, those quick-to-fix responses often put a lid on vulnerable sharing or may have the opposite, more damaging effect; the partner expressing the problem sees the response as an attempt to suppress the request for comfort.

How a “Fix-It-Quickly” response look in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I’m so upset. Ellie’s supposed to be my best friend, and she plans a whole trip without even talking to me about it. I’ve been depressed all day and I don’t know what to do. (Tears welling up).

Fix-It-Quickly Responder: “You get way too emotional over these things. Just call her and tell her what you’re feeling. Some things are easy to handle. You spend way too much time worrying and not fixing things.”

Partner seeking support: “You don’t understand. I don’t want her to think I own her. Maybe she just wanted to be with someone else instead of me. Maybe she doesn’t like me the same way anymore.”

Fix-it-quickly responder: “You are making this much worse than it is. Just solve the problem and stop worrying about it. You’re taking this much too personally.”

Conversation Stopper #4 – Shock

Somewhat similar to blaming the victim reactions, shock or outrage responses are exaggerated, negative, and challenging reactions to the other partner’s sharing.  The responder’s goal is to squelch the other’s real or imagined emotional hyper-reactivity by outdoing it. Instead of giving emotional support, the responding partner instead becomes outraged, shocked, or surprised and, by doing so, communicates that the issue is ridiculous and should never have happened in the first place. “I can’t believe you would do something like that!” Or, “You’re really acting crazy! I’m surprised at your lack of control.”

A shock response will make your partner feel humiliated, humbled, or terribly embarrassed. You may have successfully suppressed the request for your support, but it is likely to result in limited intimacy for a period of time.

How a “Shock” response looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I got so pissed off at my boss today, I told her I was fed up and seriously considering quitting. I’ve been stewing about it all day. I don’t think I can take this pushy broad’s thinking she has that kind of power over me.”

Shock responder: “You did what? You risked our whole life plan just because you had a bad day. Why didn’t you think it out first?”

Partner seeking support: “Hey, I thought you were supposed to be on my side.”

Shock responder: “Well, I usually am, but not when you do something really crazy. I can’t believe you wouldn’t have thought this through first. You acted so impulsively with so much at risk.”

Conversation Stopper #5 – Making it about you

A once famous therapist, Virginia Satir, used to call this the famous Quarterback-Sneak. Your overwhelmed partner is trying to share a distressing issue with you. Before he or she finishes telling you about the problem, you respond with something much more important about yourself. It is another form of erasing, but has a hidden demand within it which is to move the center of attention away from your partner and onto you. “I’m sorry you had a hard time today, honey, but it can’t possibly be as bad as my day…”

To make the conversation stopper really work effectively, you have to keep talking and overrule any attempts your partner makes to interrupt your need to talk about yourself. You simply continue returning the spotlight to yourself each time. “I know what you’re trying to say already and I just want to tell you how it feels when I’m in the same situation.”

Many partners do this when they are uncomfortable with what their partners are saying, don’t know how to handle the situations, or just plain want everything to end up being about them. If these continue in a long-standing relationship, the partner who tried so long and hard to share will eventually learn to listen to you without interrupting even when it’s important, or will scream louder.

How “Making-It-About-You” looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I’ve got something I have to talk to you about tonight. It’s crucial. It’s about my job…”

Making-it-about-you response: “I realize you’ve got an issue, honey, but my buddy is in trouble tonight and he needs me. I’m sorry about your deal but he counts on me when he’s drinking and I can’t just tell him ‘no.”

Partner seeking support: “But I really need to talk this out tonight. I have to make some important decisions in the morning and I need you to listen.”

Making-it-about-you response: “You’re asking me to pay attention to you when I have something really important to do. Don’t make me feel guilty just because I’m not always there for you. I try to listen to you whenever you need me, but sometimes it has to be about me. My friend is in trouble and I need to make priorities here. I’m the kind of guy who is there for his friends when they need him and I’m not going to change that. Why can’t you understand?”

Partner seeking support: “I’m not trying to get in the way of what you think you have to do. And I don’t think I ask very much of you. I’m not your mother.”

Making-it-about-you response: “Well, now that you want to talk about my mother. Sure, she pushes, but that’s not going on here. Don’t try to make this about something else. It’s about what I need to do and I don’t want you to make me feel guilty.”

Partner seeking support: (giving up) “I didn’t mean to put pressure on you. I’ll call a friend.”

Conversation Stopper #6 – Sarcasm

A sarcastic comeback is one of the worst destroyers of intimacy, because it makes the other partner feel humiliated. The hurt and stinging embarrassment felt from a sarcastic and well-aimed remark can bring the other partner down for the count, and not likely to be intimately available for some time. If that wounded partner continues to accept sarcasm as a response, he or she is headed for self-destruct, martyrdom, or the nearest exit.

Sarcastic personalities are usually modeled after a similar parent. They may even pride themselves on their personal toughness, and use sarcasm to toughen their partners: “What are you trying to do, make me actually fall for that act and feel sorry for you?”

At other times, a partner may use sarcasm to veil discontent with a behavior in the relationship: “Cute try, big boy. Neediness doesn’t turn me on.”

A partner who uses sarcasm in response to a vulnerable sharing runs the risk of permanently damaging the relationship. The other partner feels censored, mocked, or cut down, even if it is meant to be funny: “You sure looked great tonight, honey, dancing with your fly open. You wouldn’t need to advertise if you had something to sell.”

How a “Sarcastic” response looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I know I had too much to drink at the office party and I probably made a fool of myself. I feel so incredibly stupid.”

Sarcastic Response: “Poor baby. Why didn’t you think of that before you decided to act stupid and make a fool out of yourself? Maybe you just thought you were too important.”

Partner seeking support: “Ouch, you don’t have to be sarcastic. That really hurts. I’m coming to you for support, not to feel like a fool with you, too.”

Sarcastic response: “Okay, sure. Here goes. I’m so incredibly upset you decided to make yourself look like an idiot. Is that any better?”

Partner seeking support: “I’m done looking for sympathy from you.”

Sarcastic response: “Oh, wasn’t I kind enough? So sorry.”

Conversation Stopper #7 – Irritation

Regardless of age, no one wants to feel that his or her need to share will irritate the very person they seek for comfort. “Can’t you see that I don’t want to be bothered? What’s wrong with you?”

Small children might push through a worn-out parent because they have not yet learned when to stop. It’s never successful to complain to someone who is going to get angrier and less available, but children don’t squelch easily. The resulting loneliness in the midst of sorrow is too hard for them to bear.

All intimate partners have some symbolic parent-child interactions. When one partner reaches out for nurturing, the other’s irritated response brings out the rejected, neglected child in anyone. When the put-upon partner repeatedly conveys feeling burdened or exploited the other will eventually stop looking for caring. The sad outcome is that irritation begets irritation, and causes a downward emotional spiral.

How an “Irritated” response looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I’m exhausted. I just got home from the gym and the trainer really worked me out hard. I don’t think there are any muscles left that don’t hurt.”

Irritated responder: “You know, I had a hard day, too. The last thing I need is for you to complain about your problems. I need a little time to relax, too. It really irritates me when your first comments to me are complaints.”

Partner seeking support: “Why are you so pissed off? I didn’t do anything wrong, just wanted a little TLC. What’s the problem?”

Irritated response: “Can’t you just walk in the door and see where I’m at before you start trouble? Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered with your complaints when I’m tired and over-stressed. Just don’t talk to me for a while, okay? I’m sick of this day and I need to take care of myself.”

Conversation Stopper #8 – Turncoat

When partners need support in a difficult situation, there is no worse response than taking the side of the person who is upsetting them. Whether meant as an attempt to neutralize the battle or an actual agreement with the position of the “other,” supporting your partner’s antagonist is probably a bad idea.

“You’re always blaming your friend for the problem. Maybe you should look at yourself a little more. She is a good person, you know. Maybe you should treat her better.”

When distressed partners feel invalidated, hurt, or angered by someone else or their own partners, they want to be supported in that point of view. The last thing they need is to be told that the person who has wronged them is right. This is especially true if that person is not even important to either partner.

“Your brother gets a little too drunk sometimes, I agree. I don’t even like the guy, myself, but you are way too hard on him. Even if he doesn’t mean anything to me, he’s done a lot for you.”

How a “Turncoat” response looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I had this confrontation with Nan today at work. She always thinks she’s right and she never listens to me.”

Turncoat response: “Well, you can certainly understand the pressure she’s under with a new kid at home and a husband who travels so much. Maybe you’re being too hard on her.”

Partner seeking support: “Come on. She’s always been this way, and now it’s getting harder for me to listen to her blaming and complaining. She had a part in creating the things that bother her. She has no right to continually bring them into work and make me her scapegoat.”

Turncoat response: “I don’t think you’re being very compassionate. Your letting your own needs get in the way. Maybe you can offer some sympathy for her position and soften her up that way. If you just stick to your own side, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Partner seeking support: “Now I just feel worse. I can’t even talk to you without feeling like I’m the bad guy. Why can’t you just take my side once in a while?”

Conversation Stopper #9 – Minimizing

You have a problem that is really bothering you. It’s with your partner and you’ve tried many times to talk to him or her about it, but you always get the same response: you are making too much out of the issue, getting too worked up about it, trying to control, or needing too much attention. You’ve tried everything you know to get some validation of your feelings to no avail. You don’t want to stay quiet when you’re hurt or angry, but it just seems to make your partner more upset and you closer to giving up.

That is what people feel when they are continuously on the other end of a partner who minimizes their upsetting experiences, especially when they legitimately need to be taken seriously. Whether the situation is highly upsetting or just mildly bothersome, it is still important to the person who brings it up: “So your mother is doing her ‘I’m dying and no one cares’ act. Just don’t respond. You let her have way too much power over you.”

Intimate partners minimize for many reasons, but the most important is that they are overwhelmed by the other’s needs and do not know how to make them better: “Just calm down. You get worked up over nothing and this is just not that important.”

People vary in their frustration tolerances when their partners are often in distress. Still, it is always better to start off believing that your partner’s upset is real for them and needs to be addressed.

How “Minimizing” responses look in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “The traffic tonight was the worst I’ve ever seen it. I’ve been in bumper to bumper traffic for two hours. I can’t even feel my back and I got cut off by a real jerk. Almost had an accident. He was probably drunk. This commute is really getting to me.”

Minimizing response: “I’m sorry to remind you of this, babe, but you were the one who wanted to live out here where it’s peaceful. You knew you had to do this, so why are you so upset? Traffic is traffic. It comes with the territory. Some days it’s bound to be a little worse. You’re making too much of this and need to be less reactive. Maybe you could learn a language or something. You get so upset and then you ruin your evening. Just let it go.”

Partner seeking support: “You obviously don’t understand. You’re here all day and the worst traffic you ever encounter is leaving the bedroom and finding your home office. Stop trying to make me feel like I’m overreacting. This is seriously stressful.”

Minimizing response: “You know you always make things too dramatic. Just settle down and put things in perspective. You’re not helping the situation by making it worse than it is.”

Partner seeking support: ”What on God’s earth do I have to do to make you take me seriously?”

Conversation Stopper #10 – Superior Judge

Many people have strong opinions about the way dilemmas should be handled, and feel the need to correct their partners. The criticized partner might argue, resist, or counter-criticize but will eventually leave the congregation if you keep up the preaching. Even if you do know more, or think the presented difficulty should have been handled differently, you should not be ready to teach, disdain, criticize, or condemn at the first sign of distress from your partner: “You could have handled that a lot better by…”

 

Superior knowledge or experience may have value, but only when sought out. When your partner is looking for comfort and support, he or she will probably not accept your critique without feeling invalidated by it, no matter how right you may be. Unsolicited advice is not a good response to any problem, but it is especially hurtful when your partner may already be feeling badly about the situation:  “I could have really helped you if you’d come to me sooner. I know a lot about these situations.”

How a “Superior Judge” response looks in a dialogue:

Partner seeking support: “I just can’t seem to get this right. I’ve been studying this math assignment for three hours and I feel more confused now than when I started. I could use some help.”

Superior Judge Response: “You just give up too easily and then want someone to do it for you. When I come up against something difficult, I just don’t quit. You are your own worst enemy because you lose confidence and don’t fight it. I never give in to that, but if you really can’t see your way out, I’ll help you a little. I don’t want to encourage you to be a loser.”

Partner seeking support: “Now I feel really like an idiot. I did try, but I just couldn’t figure it out. I’m really smart in most things, but the way you tell me what I should have done just doesn’t get it across in an understandable way. Please don’t keep telling me how much better you are at this. I could counter with all the ways I’m better, but that would just be a stupid competition.”

Superior judge response: “Well, right is right. I am more experienced in this area than you are but that’s not the point. I just don’t reach out for help unless I really can’t do it and I know you could figure it out if you had the right attitude.”

Partner seeking support: “Well, it’s not likely to be with you.”

Keeping the conversation going is not that hard

There are countless books and articles on the art of listening, but the rules are actually quite simple:

  1. When your partner needs support, listen carefully without criticizing, invalidating, preaching, directing, erasing, blaming, sarcasm, irritation, judging, or making it about you. Stay with him or her long enough for the situation to successfully resolve.
  2. Before responding, ask your partner what you can do to help. Be honest as to whether you can provide it at the time, or whether you need anything in return.
  3. Always take your partner’s concerns seriously and express your interest and support, even if you have reservations at the time.
  4. If you do have conflicts, ask your partner if he or she is open to hear what you have to say before you express them.
  5. Know that most people eventually solve their own problems when they are lucky enough to have someone who respects their point of view. If you listen accurately and willingly, you may find that is enough to make your partner feel loved and closer.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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