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7 Safe Ways for Couples to Become Emotionally Vulnerable

Are your fights worth it? Yes, if you’ve mastered skills to fully resolve them.

Key points

  • Couples must employ the right language, tone, and mindset to take advantage of the opportunities their conflicts offer them for greater intimacy.
  • To be reality—vs. romanticism—based, couples need to acknowledge, honor, and accept the fact that both of them are imperfect and always will be.
  • In sharing your relational dissatisfaction, you’re attempting to close the gap that’s created an undesired distance between you and your mate.
Bruce Mars/Stocksnap
Source: Bruce Mars/Stocksnap

If you want the high notes, embrace the lows . . . Partners need to rough it up now and then, to go deeper. It’s navigating the bumps that makes for true intimacy. — Us, by Terrence Real

Earlier, I addressed why—like it or not—all couples experience disharmony in their relationship. And I described why the willingness to boldly confront such frustrating discord will determine the overall quality of their union.

This post will go into just how couples can employ the right language, tone, and mindset to take full advantage of the opportunity their conflicts offer them. Ironically, their difficulties can, however indirectly, serve to create for them a deeper, more enduring level of intimacy.

So why, for couples, is this matter so problematic, so prickly? Simply because most couples lack the knowledge—and certainly the expertise—to tackle their differences in ways that won’t end up further eroding their couplehood.

This post, like part 1, is based on Terrence Real’s “Relational Life Therapy,” as he characterizes it in his highly regarded book Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (2022). Plus, part 3 will address the extraordinary advantages of approaching relational conflict more positively.

The Laborious Joy of Harmony-Renewing Repair Work

If Real is correct in identifying the initial romantic stage of a relationship as love without knowledge and the subsequent disillusioned stage as knowledge without love, then it makes good sense for him to title the third stage—if a couple grows the skills and patience to get there—as knowing love.

And that, frankly, should be the ultimate goal for all couples.

“Knowing love” is what emerges through couples’ awareness that most of their differences are remedial. But even when they’re not, they can nonetheless learn to accept them (vs. tolerate or begrudge them).

Finally, that’s what represents the essence of Real’s so-called “repair work”—defined as couples processing their conflicts in a manner that both softens them and minimizes their relational liability.

Such a positive outcome emanates from couples’ willingness to become more reality-based in their thinking. They need to acknowledge that both of them are (and will always be) imperfect. And so neither can ever measure up to the “romantic”—but far-fetched—ideals imposed upon them by the other.

Yet, as already suggested, couples also need to recognize that some (maybe most) of their partner’s flaws are rectifiable, so long as the culpable partner—on their own, without pressure or ultimatums from their mate—is sufficiently motivated to work on them. Plus, the partner pointing out these shortcomings must honor and accept the other’s right to decide freely not to alter an attribute that’s bothered them.

As Real, exemplifying knowing love’s relational limitations, puts it:

Here [you accept] the temper that’s too big, the affection that’s too small, the sloppiness, or stinginess, or impulse to control—and yet you choose to love them anyway. What the relationship gives you far outweighs what it lacks.

And elsewhere, Real admits that if this isn’t the case and you’re not bound to the union for economic or other compelling reasons, you can and should (without guilt) exit this plainly—and irreparably—abusive relationship.

How, Candidly, to Request Behavioral Change From a Partner

It may be best to enumerate one by one the different elements embedded in repairing relational ruptures. And to note beforehand (as Real pointedly observes) that “it’s hard to be optimistic about the possibility of repair if you’ve never experienced it.”

Anyhow, here are the various “mechanisms of correction” that can heal partner harms and hurts:

1. Feelings of partner safety and security are paramount. So the speaker who’s addressing their mate must do so in a non-threatening way that is unlikely to intimidate or otherwise provoke them.

2. The speaker must avoid negative evaluations of their partner. Describing the verbal or physical habit that’s annoying them works far better than criticizing or condemning them for it. Moreover, the feedback given isn’t about their partner’s character but, specifically, one of their behaviors.

So to avoid addressing them righteously, the speaker should rehearse in their head how they can humbly use “I feel” statements to take personal ownership of what’s frustrating them. And they need to take care not to succumb to the powerful temptation to hold their partner morally responsible for their dissatisfaction.

3. The speaker’s approaching their partner politely is also critical. It greatly increases the odds that the receiver will stay open and be more receptive to the speaker’s remarks than if they were approached with hostility, anger, or rage. The speaker must keep in mind that they’re not trying to push the auditor back but—gently—pull them in.

4. The speaker must respect the other’s boundaries. They have no business trespassing or otherwise intruding on their partner’s defenses, which may have been erected a long time ago and rarely can change overnight. Granted, those firmly entrenched boundaries might be outdated and self-defeating (e.g., see my post “Are Your Boundaries Making You Miserable?”). But that’s still a topic which, for now, should be left alone.

5. The speaker shouldn’t begin with an agenda. You’re not belligerently striving to control your mate. You’re simply sharing something that’s caused an undesired distance between you. Additionally, you’re hoping your (solution-oriented) communication will close the gap. And for both of you.

6. Hug. The speaker needs to come from a position, or place, of “we”—not “I and you,” or “I versus you.” Even though the speaker is explicitly addressing their disharmonious state, the reality of their past harmony can yet be affirmed. So, any physical gesture that includes a calming press of flesh, which serves to reinforce the speaker’s positive intent, can be invaluable. For it will lighten the heavy, dispiriting adversity that temporarily may have taken hold.

7. Curiosity and validation are key. After the speaker forcefully, but not harshly, expresses their unmet autonomy or intimacy needs, they must also express curiosity, and a genuine interest in, their partner’s opposing needs—perceived as being as valid, subjectively, as their own. Next, they need to inquire about the other’s feelings and decide, in advance, that whatever they are, they won’t refute but support them.

Again, it’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong or at fault. It’s about finding a compromise that can be mutually experienced as acceptable. That makes it a win-win. As so many therapists have recognized, if only one wins, both ultimately lose, leaving the relationship in a state of disrepair.

But What About the Partner on the Receiving End?

The above points have focused almost exclusively on the partner voicing their displeasure or discontent. How they can voice their concerns in a non-attacking, non-condescending fashion. But to restore relational harmony, the listener has an equally important role to play.

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to elaborate on all that this response might entail. But I’ll emphasize that the receiver’s reply needs at once to be compassionate, avoid making excuses or self-justifications, and demonstrate an openness to “take in” what their mate has shared.

Beyond that, they should contemplate whether the request made of them is reasonable and deserves serious consideration, despite its necessitating that they extend themselves to meet it.

This is hardly the time, resistantly, to retaliate by immediately registering their own grievances, even though they may not be any less legitimate than their mate’s. Undoubtedly, they’re free to do this later, or at the other’s invitation. But they should be careful not to catapult things right back into the “I and you” competitive mode, which constituted the core of the problem to begin with.

To conclude with a summary quotation from Us, couples “re-harmonizing” their discrepancies—or, as Real frames it, actively “taking each other on”—encapsulates:

Airing your dissatisfactions, articulating your desires, making concrete suggestions about how things might work better for you [e.g., “Here’s what I think we might start doing to have a healthier sex life," or ". . . communicate more clearly with each other”], and then, if all goes well, working like a team to make things right. Repair demands assertion (not aggression) from the unhappy partner met with care and responsiveness (not defensiveness) in the other. There is a technology to repair, a bundle of skill sets that few learn about in our nonrelational, individualistic culture.


© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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