- Intimacy is both an individual capacity and a relational dynamic.
- Gender role socialization, family of origin dynamics, and experiences of marginalization can make it hard for some people to open up.
- Because context matters, it helps couples to think about the setting, time of day, and activities that make them feel patient and relaxed.
- One should celebrate small victories by expressing gratitude and committing to never using their partner's vulnerable shares against them.
A commonly asked relationship question is: "How do I get my partner to open up to me?” The pain housed within this question is so legitimate because intimate relationships are built on a foundation of… intimacy.
Relationship scientists have attempted to define intimacy in a number of different ways. For our purposes here, let’s use a definition from family therapy researchers, Lyman and Adele Wynne (2007). Intimacy is a “relational experience that is characterized by mutual exchange and an ambiance of proximity and engagement between two persons.”
In other words, intimacy is about being able to open up to your partner and trust that what you are sharing will be handled with respect and care. Researchers and theorists have debated the degree to which intimacy is an individual capacity (like a personality trait) or a relational dimension/characteristic. The answer seems to be that intimacy is both a trait and a dynamic. The complexities of loving and being loved mean that the answer to most questions about intimate relationships ends up being a hearty both/and.
So, we yearn for closeness. We yearn to be able to share our interiors with our partners—our hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, and questions. And we yearn for that same kind of access into our partner’s inner world. Feeling as if we are met with a closed door is painful and creates the conditions for loneliness. “How do I get my partner to open up to me?” is such a legitimate question.
There’s something problematic, however, about the framing of this question. Whenever we ask, “How can I get you to…” we are (subtly) seeking control over another person. I offer here a gentle reminder that the only person we have control over is ourselves, and the most we can ever do is “set the table” and hope they will join us.
Try reframing the question, asking this constraint question instead: “What is keeping my partner from opening up to me?” If you are familiar with my work, you know I love to ask “constraint questions.” Constraint questions are a central part of Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST), the model that has been developed and refined at The Family Institute at Northwestern University over the last 25 years. Constraint questions:
- Plant the seed of possibility that things can be different by creating a hopeful frame around the problem.
- Focus us on what is blocking the healthy response. Once we know what is blocking the “solution” (here, opening up) we can start to work on lifting that constraint.
Reflect on the question: “What is keeping my partner from opening up to me?” If you want “extra credit” you can ask your partner this question directly. Some common constraints to emotional vulnerability that I see in my work include:
- Gender Role Socialization: If your partner has been socialized in the masculine, he learned early on to associate emotional vulnerability with weakness. He was told implicitly and explicitly to keep a stiff upper lip, to keep his guard up, and certainly to never, ever cry. His intimate relationship with you may be the first and only place he ever opens up. While the amount he opens up may feel only an inch deep to you, to him, it may feel as deep as the ocean because it stands in stark contrast to his other relational experiences. This is not an excuse. It is a context. I want men’s partners to expect the depth and tenderness that foster intimacy because I have seen men grow into this ability. I just also want men’s partners to practice patience. What may feel like resistance is more likely inexperience.
- Family of Origin Dynamics: If your partner is from a family that didn’t “do feelings,” these muscles never developed. Again, not an excuse, but a context. What you are wanting and needing is in direct contrast with your partner’s prior experiences.
- Marginalized Identities: If your partner occupies one or more marginalized identities, they may well have had times when their vulnerable self-disclosures were dismissed, disbelieved, or used against them. Becoming self-protective may well be a survival strategy that helps them navigate the ways in which the wind is at their face.
There are many other origin stories. See if this list helps you feel more curious and/or compassionate about what might be keeping your partner from opening up to you.
Now that we have looked at what might be keeping your partner from opening up, let’s talk about how you can invite your partner into emotionally vulnerable conversations.
- Go Meta. Ask your partner when they would be available to give their full attention to a conversation with you. If vulnerability feels out-of-control for them, choosing the time and place for the conversation can help them feel like they have some control. The conversation is not being sprung on them in a way that feels pressured and/or inescapable.
- Set the Scene: Reflect on the settings that tend to promote closeness and ease for the two of you. What time of day? What room(s) of your home? Or are you outside? Are you walking? Seated? Lying down? In a car? In the tub? Is there music playing in the background? Are you eating or drinking? Intimacy is context-dependent, so intentionality matters.
- Start With Short and Sweet: Remember that intimate conversation is a muscle that your partner may be building for the first time. A brief conversation that feels connecting is preferable to a long conversation that goes off the rails. Build on small victories.
- Celebrate Progress, Not Perfection: When your partner does open up to you, even if it’s brief and even if it’s simple, express gratitude. Letting your partner know that you appreciate their willingness to stretch for the good of the relationship is far from patronizing and can be a powerful motivator. What we focus on we get more of!
- Tap the Power of Triangulation: Intimate conversation can be so much easier when you are talking in response to something you have seen, read, or heard. When you bring in an outside source, you are inviting the two of you to explore together in response to some content. This post you’re reading right now, for example!
Use these strategies to invite the kind of connection you are craving.
Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock
Wynne, Lyman & Wynne, Adele. (2007). The Quest for Intimacy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 12. 383 - 394. 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1986.tb00671.x.