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How to Get Through to Your Partner

Research on misattunement and "naive" stoicism.

Refat/Shutterstock, Leire Cavia/Stocksy
Refat/Shutterstock, Leire Cavia/Stocksy

I’m Your Partner, and I’m Here to Help

By Dave Smallen, Ph.D.

One of the major roles relationship partners play in each other’s lives is providing support—and the quality of that support affects their satisfaction and personal well-being. Couples aid each other in a range of ways, from helping with household tasks to cheering each other toward personal goals to just being there with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.

Researchers commonly classify support within a relationship into three categories: emotional support (concern, empathy, love, or encouragement); tangible support (help with tasks like cooking or managing finances); and informational support (sharing news, facts, or advice). Unfortunately, couples often run into a mismatch between the support one partner seeks and the type the other offers in response. When couples aren’t able to find their way from such mismatches to alignment, they can miss opportunities to connect.

One classic mismatch occurs when a partner shares something causing stress, sadness, or frustration, and the other responds by jumping in to “fix” the problem or offering suggestions to that end. When someone opens up to a partner about their challenges, such as by venting about issues they are dealing with at work, they are often seeking emotional support—to be heard and shown compassion in their present struggle—rather than soliciting advice or assistance. If their partner instead turns the conversation to fixing the issues through tangible or informational support, they may feel emotionally invalidated—and more stressed. At the same time, the partner trying to offer their particular type of support may feel confused, frustrated, or rejected: In their eyes, a valid bid to help was poorly received. As this push and pull plays out, a couple can fall into conflict, each upset that the other doesn’t understand them.

When a partner reaches out to you for emotional support, it may not always seem so, but it’s actually a very practical ask—even if all they want in the moment is to share their feelings and connect and find comfort with someone who cares about their ups and downs. Supporting them in processing their anger, comforting their sadness, or regulating their anxiety is constructive because it helps them shift into an emotional state in which they feel grounded enough to respond to their own struggle.

Conversely, some partners are less comfortable receiving emotional support and prefer tangible help when they feel stressed. When they have a pressing need for information, advice, or hands-on help, their partner’s emotional support may feel beside the point.

Ivafoto/Shutterstock, Zurueta/Shutterstock
Ivafoto/Shutterstock, Zurueta/Shutterstock

Elusive Alignment

Considering the many possible feelings and needs at play in a given moment, it would certainly be useful for couples to make time with each other to talk about the kinds of support that best fit certain situations.

Being clear about the type of support you are seeking helps a partner better show up for you. No matter how well couples know each other, they can’t read each other’s minds, so be specific about what you want from your partner when you reach out. Perhaps you could use a hug and emotional validation, or maybe you want their advice.

And when your partner comes to you for support, first ask what kind of help would be most welcome—or just start by expressing empathy and then check in to see if they also feel they need either informational or tangible aid. Showing that you understand the problem and care enough to assist in a way that recognizes and respects their preferences builds closeness and trust.

Misattunement and conflict can happen in healthy relationships. Getting yourselves in alignment when it comes to support takes trial and error. You may miss the mark before showing up in a way that genuinely helps, and that’s OK. Communicating about how these bids for support go awry gives you and your partner the chance to practice the vital relationship habit of finding your way back from mismatch to connection.

Dave Smallen, Ph.D., is a research psychologist and community faculty at Metropolitan State University.

I’m Your Partner, and I’m Shutting Down

By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

When a partner seems perpetually unhappy and seemingly unable to find joy in their life, it’s natural to reach out to try to discuss their feelings with them. But what if they refuse to engage? Imagine you’ve just had an otherwise pleasant evening with relatives that was marred by a tactless remark someone made toward your partner. When pressed about it on the way home, though, they just say, “It’s fine, I don’t care,” and leave it at that.

If such shoving aside of negative feelings is typical, your partner may be sticking to a kind of stoic attitude that holds that any exploration of emotions is taboo. You don’t want to keep prodding and poking, but you also wish there was a way to help them become more comfortable talking about their feelings.

New research by Victoria University of New Zealand psychologist Johannes Alfons Karl and colleagues suggests that “naïve Stoicism” could be at the heart of some people’s tendency to clam up in emotionally arousing situations.

Classic Stoicism, as represented in ancient Greek philosophy, involves thoughtful engagement with negative thoughts and the cultivation of moral ideals. In fact, the modern practice of cognitive behavioral therapy, often employed to help those with depression and a range of other mental health concerns, is based on exactly this type of classical thought. A therapist typically tries to help clients delve into their feelings as the critical first step to changing the way that they engage with troubling situations. In naïve Stoicism, though, such nuances are ignored and individuals adhere to a counterproductive set of beliefs emphasizing the nonexpression, if not the active suppression, of emotions.

J614/iStock, Betacam Sp/Shutterstock
J614/iStock, Betacam Sp/Shutterstock

Refusal to Engage

How does a rigid refusal to engage with emotions affect someone, and how could their partner help them open up? To begin, the research team sought to determine whether people scoring high on a measure known as the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale (PWSIS) would also have low scores on gauges of well-being and happiness.

The PWSIS evaluates endurance (“I expect myself to hide my aches and pains from others”), taciturnity (“I don’t believe in talking about my personal problems”), serenity (“I would prefer to be unemotional”), and death acceptance (“I would not allow myself to be bothered by the fear of death”). People scoring high on the scale tend to squelch emotions and push away a range of problems. Including the fear of death on such a scale may seem out of place, but the researchers contend that it’s reasonable for people to express at least some anxiety about death, and those who pretend otherwise—such as so-called naïve stoics—deny a universal element of human experience.

Now think about how your partner would reply to those sample phrases above, and consider whether naïve Stoicism characterizes their approach to life. For example, try to recall a situation in which you both witnessed a very sad event, either directly, on the news, or in a movie. Did your partner show any emotion at all? Could you detect even the slightest hint of sadness?

The research team recruited three groups of young adults for their study, in the U.S., Norway, and New Zealand. They found that participants who scored high on all elements of the PWSIS had lower levels of both eudaemonic well-being, the sense of flourishing and finding meaning in life, and hedonic well-being, or feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Men generally scored higher than women on the PWSIS.

A Path to Openness

People with naïve Stoicism beliefs can change, the team suggests. They have found that the ideology is “malleable and responsive to interventions,” and a shift in perspective should lead to improved well-being and connection. A committed partner can play an important role in opening up a naïve stoic, and these four approaches could be useful.

  1. Help your partner understand that there’s nothing weak about showing that something hurts. Help them recognize that it’s normal for experiences like being the target of a tactless remark at a family gathering to cause emotional pain, just as it’s normal for a cut from a knife to cause physical pain. There’s no need to dwell on such incidents, but acknowledging their negative effect can help someone understand that their feelings about it are acceptable.
  2. Share some gentle prompts. When your partner is with you or others to whom they feel close, it may be necessary to help them give voice to the problems preoccupying them—whether it’s an issue at work, something you’re doing that aggravates them, or anything, trivial or profound, that seems to be affecting them. If you notice them shutting down or wonder if something specific is disturbing them, go ahead and ask them to tell you how they feel about it.
  3. Address their “serenity” directly. It’s certainly possible that your partner’s family background or life experience has taught them not to tread into emotional territory. And while there can be value in the ability to be unemotional at times when emotions could cloud their judgment, putting the stifling of feelings at the center of one’s overriding philosophy can erode both mental and physical health.
  4. Don’t be afraid to talk about death. The fear or denial of death can be difficult to overcome in anyone. If your partner shuts down or changes the subject every time you bring up topics such as a living will or long-term care, acknowledge that it’s understandable to be reluctant to talk about such issues but point out that by pretending death will never occur, they could cut themselves off from the possibility of fully savoring life.

Although the qualities of Stoicism might seem admirable or even aspirational to some, the belief that it means never showing your feelings or even allowing yourself to experience them will only interfere with well-being and make relationships a challenge. For a naïve stoic, being with someone who can help them open up, and is willing to make the commitment to do it, can truly restore connection.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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