What is the truth about my partner? Finding an answer to this question is a bit complicated. The reason for this is that our moods shift frequently, our lives are constantly changing, and so are our feelings about our significant other. Maybe, for example, I wake up next to my partner feeling loving and grateful, very much in love. By mid-morning, I may be stressed out by a work project, and she may call and ask me questions I have little patience for under the circumstances. I could react with annoyance. Those feelings may pass soon, and by lunchtime I recognize I was stressed, my annoyance emerged from that stress, and I now feel connected again. In the afternoon, we meet for coffee, and the conversation is less than thrilling; not bad, just a bit dull. This encounter may make me feel sad and concerned about whether we are really connected anymore. At dinner time, I arrive home only to be surprised with a beautiful meal, hugs, and kisses, and I feel absorbed in feelings of love, arousal, and relief- we are O.K. after all. Now, which of these moments is key? On which experience should I hang my hat and say that this emotion defines our relationship? Of course, none of them is the whole truth. Each feeling, though it may overpower you, though is may feel like the truth and lead you to communicate positively or negatively in a relationship, is still not really defining.
In a strange way, this recognition provides relief. It allows us to detach a bit from the everyday emotional landscape of our interactions with our partner. If we know not to take anyone's momentary sense of reality too seriously, including our own, we can get on with our day and allow ourselves to see the broader picture.
Think of evaluating the "truth" of your relationship the way you would evaluate a long vacation overseas: When you come back, what do you tell people when they ask you how it was? Do you describe it as great, good, or bad? Do you say, "I'm not sure I would go back," or "I can't wait to return"? We answer this question instinctively and quite quickly because we have some intuitive sense of the whole experience. Looking back on the trip, if we wrote about it extensively, we would find that it consisted of ever-changing emotional states: good, bad, and indifferent. All these emotions combine to create a picture, a representation of the whole. You have a sense of this representation, and you can feel it quite strongly even though during the trip you felt many different emotions. Often this sense of clarity will come in moments of quiet reflection on your way home. This sort of contemplative place is where you need to be to feel out the "truth" of your relationship.
Now, this gives us a sense of our emotional truth of the relationship as a whole. However, how do we know when to communicate our "micro" truths to our partner? Do we believe there should be complete openness, that I should and he should be able to express my feelings at anytime, without censoring them at all? This can be a delicate issue. Some people feel that, because they are in an intimate relationship, they have the right to express themselves, whenever, for whatever reason. This idea is an outsized version of the healthy desire not to shut yourself down and hold things back. One may have even come from a childhood where self-expression was stifled and discouraged. That person will react particularly strongly to suggestions that filtering and timing his thoughts about you is important. However, we must remember that in a mature relationship, we need to learn how to continue to build upon our ability to communicate effectively. And in this vein, one of the most important things to learn about communication is appropriate timing and context.
You want to ask yourself, have I thought through what I want to express to my partner, or is this the first time it has come to my mind? Is this issue relatively simple, or is this issue highly sensitive? It's surprising how rarely a person considers these sorts of questions before discussing issues with their partner. Yet the same individual will often ask themselves these questions, along with many others, before discussing highly sensitive issues with a boss, friend, or family member. I believe this has something to do with the misconception that we have the right to express ourselves however we want with our significant others. It's a belief that is based on the idea that our partner should be available at all times to discuss our feelings about certain subjects, regardless of the emotional state he/she is in. This is a good time to practice pausing, taking a breath, and empathically considering how you would want him to express his thoughts to you. Furthermore, do you really want him to talk about thoughts he has had about you which are based, not on the reality of your relationship, but rather on his reaction to stresses he is feeling in his own life?
Become aware of how your emotional state can distort your thoughts about and reactions to your partner: With this increased awareness, you will begin to recognize the patterns of thoughts that tend to come at times of stress, before you rush to verbalize them to your partner unnecessarily. That way, when you do have to communicate something important and sensitive, you can try to pick the best time, frame it in the right way, and ultimately, have the satisfaction of knowing that you are able to clearly say what you wanted to say.
* This blog is based on chapters 23 and 40 in my book, 51 Thing You Should Know Before Getting Engaged, Turner Publishing, 2009, www.the51things.com