Janine is upset. She tries to tell her boyfriend, Nevin, what’s wrong.
“Last night at the party, I felt like you abandoned me. You talked to everyone there except me.”
Nevin defends himself: “I didn’t ‘abandon’ you. You could’ve come over and joined those conversations any time you wanted.”
Now Janine goes on the defensive. “I shouldn’t have to remind you we’re there together,” she points out.
What started out as an attempt to express a feeling has escalated into a cycle of attack-and-defend.
If this happens in your relationship, here are a few steps you can take that may make it easier for your partner to hear and understand you.
1. Acknowledge good intentions. Starting a complaint with, “I know you love me and would never knowingly do anything to hurt me. So it’s hard for me to say this and it may be hard to hear, but the other night when we were at the party… ” can make your message easier to hear.
2. Avoid accusations, like "You abandoned me," or "You always do that." Instead, talk about your feelings, using feeling words like "hurt" and "scared." These two emotions—hurt and fear—can cause trouble in intimate relationships when not properly addressed.
Example: “I felt hurt/scared/insecure/lonely/etc. when you talked to other people at the party and didn’t come by even once to check in.”
3. Ask for information. Don’t assume you always know your partner’s motivations. E.g., “I wasn’t sure if it was because you were bored with me, and desperate to talk to someone more interesting after being with me all day. That’s how I felt, but is that what was going on with you?”
4. Refuse to debate the facts. Nevin might say, "I did come by to check on you," and if Janine says, "No, you didn't," suddenly they're arguing about what happened.
A better response from Janine would be, "I do appreciate that. I know you care about me. But somehow, I still felt lonely."
Keep your eye on the real issue, which is how you feel. Your emotions are not debatable.
5. Own your own stuff. E.g., “I have a pretty strong need for reassurance, and it might not always be easy to relate to that... ” Owning what’s yours is important in every relationship. That’s especially true when expressing difficult feelings to your partner.
Notice and acknowledge ways your own behavior may contribute to a problem between you.
6. Acknowledge good intentions again. Don’t assume once is enough. Our brains are wired to pay attention to danger signs, not signs that all is well.
Repeat reassurances like, “I know the last thing you want is for me to feel bad, and you didn’t mean to hurt me.”
7. Provide a solution. If you're upset about something your partner does, make sure to suggest something s/he can do differently. Make it a request, not a demand.
E.g., "Would you be willing to put your arm around me or take my hand when you see me?"
8. Tolerate your partner’s defensiveness. No matter how well you say it, your partner’s alarm system may go off the minute you indicate you’re unhappy. Repeat #6 as often as needed to keep the conversation from escalating.
The only way to get more comfortable with conversations like this is to survive a few of them unscathed.
Once you both realize you can share difficult feelings without putting the relationship in danger, you can achieve a new level of intimacy.