“My girlfriend wants me to open up to her,” Harry* said. “She wants me to talk about my feelings. I don’t know how to do that. And I’m not even sure I want to.”
I asked Harry if he had any idea why his partner was making this request. “I think she wants to know how I feel about her,” he said. “Like, where our relationship is going. And she also said that she wants me to understand her feelings.”
“Do you have an idea what feelings she wants you to understand?”
“I think what she really wants is for me to say how I’m feeling about our relationship.”
“And how do you feel about it?”
“I love her and love being in our relationship,” he said. “But we’ve only been together for seven months. I’m not ready to get married or anything. I’m not even ready to live together.”
I asked Harry if he could say how he was feeling at that moment.
“Right now?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, this is kind of surprising, since we’re talking about something that usually makes me really tense, but I actually feel more relaxed than I have in awhile.”
Many people come into therapy with the same problem Harry was struggling with. Sometimes it’s a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse who wants the other member of their relationship to talk more about their feelings and to be more sensitive to their partner’s feelings. But sometimes trying to solve this problem can lead to anxiety and tension for one or both members of a couple and simultaneously escalate the problems between them.
What’s the problem here? Plenty of research suggests that it is useful to talk about your feelings. Some even shows that putting feelings into words actually changes the brain’s chemistry. So why would asking your partner to talk about his or her feelings create more problems than it solves in a relationship? And why did Harry feel more relaxed after speaking to me about the same feelings that made him tense when his girlfriend asked about them?
The answers are, as with most things in psychology, both simple and complicated. On the one hand, recent research has shown that even just naming a feeling, without doing anything else, can lessen the intensity of the emotion and help us manage it better. On the other hand, when you ask your partner to tell you how he or she feels, you often have an agenda. That agenda most likely puts pressure on your partner. And that pressure makes it hard for him or her to label the feelings honestly, which then means that your partner doesn’t get the benefit of naming the feelings, and you end up feeling hurt, angry, and/or betrayed.
All of which means that when we talk about feelings in a situation in which the consequences are potentially painful or disruptive, we tend not to get the same benefit that we get when we talk about them, or even simply name them, in a neutral environment.
So next time you ask your partner to talk about his or her feelings, keep these three ideas in mind:
1. Are you really asking them to share their emotions with you? Or do you have something specific in mind that you want to hear from them?
If you have something specific that you want to hear, it’s actually better if you spell it out. Alix* and Ralph*, who have been happily for many years, told me that in the early days of their relationship, Alix frequently asked Ralph if he loved her.
“I’m not good at saying those things,” Ralph said. “I would tell her, ‘Honey, don’t I show you how much I love you everyday?’”
She told him, “You do. But I need to hear the words sometimes. Could you try to tell me once in a while?” And he did, and has, for almost 40 years. And, he says, “It’s much easier for me to say it these days.”
Alix says, “I don’t need to hear it so much anymore. I do know that he loves me, and he shows it all the time. But I appreciate that he listened to what I needed and tried to respond to it.”
2. If you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say, then it’s important to let your partner say it in whatever language they can.
Labeling feelings can be an important part of managing them better, but only if the words feel accurate. One thing you can do is help your partner find the right words for what she or he is feeling; but again, that only works if you are genuinely interested in what they are really feeling.
When Harry and I had talked some more about his feelings, he went back to Patty and said that he wanted to try to talk to her about what he was feeling. He also told her that he would like her help naming his emotions, since he wasn't always so good at it. “But,” he told her, “I need your help saying it in my own words. It won’t work if you try to tell me what I’m feeling. And it won’t work if you try to make me feel something that you want me to feel.”
3. Double-check your own feelings, while you’re at it.
Take some time to name your own emotions — out loud to someone else is best, since many of the neural changes that occur with labeling feelings come from saying the words out loud to someone else.
And here’s the trickiest part of all: Sometimes what we feel has several layers and therefore several different labels. It doesn’t work to force someone to try to acknowledge layers they aren’t aware of; but sometimes when you name the most apparent emotion, the next layer becomes closer to the surface, and it’s easier to name it as well.
For instance, when Harry told Patty that he wanted her help naming his feelings, he said, “But I want us to try to find a way to name yours better, too.” She said, “I’m pretty good at talking about my feelings. I share mine with you much more than you share yours!”
“That’s true,” said Harry. “But maybe we can work together on being clearer about what we’re both feeling. Like right now. Can you say what you’re feeling?”
She said, “Yes, I’m feeling like you don’t really want to do this.”
Harry and I had discussed the idea that naming your feelings is not as easy as it seems, and he realized that Patty hadn’t actually done it this time. Instead, she had told him what he was feeling.
“So, are you angry?”
She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Yes. I’m angry. And I’m hurt. You…”
He interrupted her before she could say more about him and his feelings and his behavior. “I understand that you’re angry and that you’re hurt,” he said. “And I’m sorry that I’m making you feel that way.” He put his arm around her. “I hope that you understand that I love you, even though I’m not ready to do what you want me to do.”
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t try to say what I’m feeling. Are you saying that you love me?”
He said, “Yes. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said.
When Harry came into therapy for his next session, he said, “It didn’t solve our problem, but we both actually felt better for a little while. And we felt closer. That’s pretty cool.”
Here's the thing: Naming feelings is not the final step to solving difficulties. Sometimes it takes time and work to make changes that help both partners feel comfortable. But an important first step in many situations is finding the words that describe the actual feelings. And sometimes that's actually enough to start a change process. We often feel that we have to make change happen; but neural changes are often the result of simply saying words out loud, to another person, who hears and accepts what we are feeling without trying to change us. And those shifts in our brains can, eventually, often very subtly, lead somewhere that forced attempts to change don't take us.
* All names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy
Please note: I love to know what you think about what I’ve written, so please leave your comments below, and if you have questions about the content or the ideas in this or any other post, put them in your comments! If you’d like to get feedback from other commenters, feel free to ask them questions as well. However, it is not possible for me to respond to individual requests for personal advice in your comments or through email or the Internet. Thanks so much for understanding.
Lisa J. Burklund, J. David Creswell, Michael R. Irwin, and Matthew D. LiebermanThe common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adultsFrontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 221. Published online 2014 Mar 24. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00221
Matthew D. Lieberman,Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia,and Molly J. Crockett
Subjective Responses to Emotional Stimuli During Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction
Emotion. 2011 Jun; 11(3): 468–480.
Published online 2011 May 2. doi: 10.1037/a0023503