Guest Post by Lady Jane
I was having a tough conversation with my partner the other night and it left us both emotionally and physically wounded. This is not so desirable for emotional growth and bonding and isn’t how you want your conversations and interactions to conclude. We happened to be discussing intimacy, or lack thereof, and our various ways of expressing it. This was a valuable conversation to have because we had never talked about this before and it turns out, we differ in the ways in which we express and want to receive intimacy. The topic of our discussion is irrelevant, however, what is important is how we respond to our partners when they share something difficult.
Having tough conversations, or, the ones that invoke lip biting, nerve racking, and that lump-in-your-throat feeling, are very valuable for unpacking many issues. In fact, I recommend that to build intimacy, you have lots of challenging conversations!
Tough conversations are an important way to really dig deep and move beyond the superficial in relationships. If you really want to fall in love with someone, have an uncomfortable conversation or two…or three!
Sharing our struggles is the same as sharing vulnerability.
It comes from a place of feeling exposed and feeling brave enough to share something so fragile. I personally have feelings of fear when I share something that I think will raise challenges and often become so fearful that I don’t speak up at all.
The hardest part, even harder than speaking up in the first place, can be receiving what your partner is so in need of saying. Once you’ve mustered up the courage to express your feelings, it takes a delicate and empathetic ear to hold space for those challenging topics.
That phrase we’ve all responded with, “I don’t know what to say,” or its equally unhelpful variation, “What do you want me to say?” are perhaps the most destructive and hurtful responses a person can give to another. It feels like a rejection. Often, once we hear something difficult, we’re unsure how to respond. If you’ve responded with these phrases before, as I have many times, realize that this response can be quite damaging to someone who has just opened up and shared something that took a lot of courage for them to say.
They are afraid, self-conscious, fragile, exposed, and nervous that what they say might end the relationship, or that the Universe itself is going to come crashing down simply because they’ve shared their feelings. How frightening it is for them when all you can respond with is, “I don’t know what to say.” It feels like the floor has just been taken out from under your partner’s feet.
However, even if you’ve responded with these phrases in the past, don’t beat yourself up too hard. And if you’re the partner that just revealed something, try to have compassion for them, too. So often our responses are about ourselves and are limited by our own barriers or unresolved issues, not based on what the other individual presented. You do the best that you can in emotional moments. The truth is, we don’t always know what to say and we don’t always have the answers our partners need or like to hear. What we can strive to do is offer more supportive responses.
Gentle readers, I would like to propose some of those responses that you can say to your partner when they share something difficult. First, take a deep breath. Hearing that your partner is displeased or wary about something can be rough. Keep in mind that getting defensive or feeling like you did something wrong as an initial response is not going to help the situation. You want to set up the conversation so you can learn about each other and decide together the direction you want to go. Second, see if you can try to put yourself in their shoes. What could it feel like for them to be in this place of pain? Likewise, what would it feel like to hear something troubling? How will you react and respond?
Here are some potential first sentences that you could use if you’re not sure how to respond empathetically:
- Thank you for sharing that, that must have been really hard for you to tell me.
- I hear what you are saying, let me sit with it for a few moments and let’s talk about it when I’m in a better place to respond.
- I didn’t realize you were feeling this way.
- I’m sorry you have been feeling this way. Side note: In Keeley’s practice, she often tells people not to say, “I’m sorry” right off the bat. Apologizing immediately can actually minimize someone’s feelings because the response feels so automatic. Really attempt to hear what your partner is saying. Are you sorry that their feelings are hurt? Are you sorry for your actions? Do you know what you are apologizing for or is it just an automatic response to escape this uncomfortable situation quickly?
- Let’s try to explore what you’re saying, and if we can, fix this together or see if we can come up with a way we can move forward.
- Your feelings are very important to me, I’m glad you feel comfortable sharing them.
- Let’s think of some ways that we can help you feel more supported.
- Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I feel closer to you now that I know how you’re feeling.
Any of these phrases would be so much better than hearing,“What do you want me to say?” or, “I don’t know what to say.” In my situation, right after I had just shared my feelings, I needed my partner to acknowledge me and support me. Instead I felt abandoned by his reaction and as if my feelings were not heard.
Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes allows you to better understand that your partner has just admitted something very difficult and they are feeling vulnerable. The least you can do for them in this moment is acknowledge their feelings and come from a place of support, rather than a place of abandonment. When you respond with, “I don’t know what to say,” you void their feelings of validation.
If finding words is difficult, put your hand gently on their back or shoulder and just look into their eyes. You can also accompany a gentle touch with, “It’s going to be okay.” Sometimes, just being reminded that things are okay is hugely beneficial and healing. If you can, say something like, “Thanks, I’m hearing that you are wanting “x”/struggling with “x”/ and/or hurt and I want to try to support you.”
Remember, phrases that validate feelings don’t solve their problems, take away fault, or place blame. They simply soften the space that follows after someone shares something personal.
Hearing, “What do you want me to say?” is very passive and puts the recipient on the defensive. Your partner is already feeling like they have no armor on, so, to throw the conversation back at them will cause them to recoil. Once someone has become defensive, it is almost impossible to have a conversation of clarity, substance, and growth. For me, hearing this made me feel like I shouldn’t even bother with sharing any feelings with my partner in the future. I felt ashamed, stupid, and even more disconnected. My partner wasn’t interested in my feelings at all because his response turned the weight of the dialogue back on me. I felt like he didn’t care, so, I became defensive, snappy, and sorry that I had said anything in the first place.
People can have all sorts of responses in difficult conversations. My partner used the deflection “I’m not sure what to say,” yet you may have tried other forms that didn’t help your partner to feel better. As we learn more about one another, hopefully we can also grow towards finding ways to have difficult conversations that feel as though we are being seen, heard, and loved.
We can do better for our partners and make them feel welcomed and unafraid to share how they are feeling, no matter what. We don’t have to offer suggestions or try to fix the problems that our partners share. Sometimes there aren’t any solutions and our partners just need to know that we offer a safe space for them.
Holding and being a safe space builds intimacy.
Uncomfortable conversations are going to happen in your relationships. Will you be empathetic, supportive, and validating? Or will you push your partners further away by using cop-out, empty, and destructive responses?
I hope your challenging conversations lead to growth as well as greater openness, intimacy, and love.
Featured image via WeHeartIt