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Expectations in a Relationship: Three to Avoid

Expectations in a Relationship: Three to Avoid

Anastacia Sams, M.A., LMFTC is a kind, compassionate marriage counselor, therapist and coach here to help you create your very best life. Ana specializes in helping couples create healthy, happy partnerships, and assisting individuals to heal from past hurts so they can create fulfillment and joy in their lives.

What Are Your Expectations In a Relationship?

Avoid The Three Relationship Expectations That Will Always Mess Things Up

Even before I became a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist, I would have described myself as being a “hopeless romantic” and had grand expectations in a relationship. Growing up, I loved the idea of love. To me, the movies I watched made relationships seem easy. You know, the ones where both partners overcome some kind of obstacle to finally realize their need for the other, they confess their undying love then live happily ever after.

I loved this idea growing up, because it just seemed so natural. It seemed like such a stark difference from the real-world relationships that were falling apart all around me. I realized that my idolization of relationships in the movies led me to develop some unrealistic expectations about relationships in my own definition of what a healthy relationship looks like.

Here are some of the biggest expectations in a relationship that may prevent you from experiencing fulfillment with your partner:

Unrealistic Relationship Expectation #1: “I have to be perfect.”  

Have you ever felt that you can’t let your partner see your faults or weaknesses?

As a couples therapist, I work with many couples who feel this pressure to be perfect for their partner, oftentimes stating their fear that sharing their weaknesses will somehow diminish the quality of their relationship.

These feelings of insecurity often leads to one or both partners tip-toeing around each other, neglecting to share their needs or fears, forfeiting the opportunity to experience a true, genuine connection with each other.

The myth of perfection is detrimental because it assumes that humans are faultless beings. Which we are not. Furthermore, perfectionism results in unsatisfactory relationships because there is a lack of depth and meaning when you are only sharing what you believe to be the best parts of you. In fact, vulnerability connects. 

A partnership is about giving each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s about sharing life together.  To share life with another person is to offer them your whole heart with the hope that you are both able and willing to accept and love each other fully — accepting the good with the bad.

When this kind of intimacy happens, it creates a true partnership, a bond full of depth and meaning with a person who you feel safe to rely on, through both the difficulties of life and the joys.

Tip: Try making a list of your top three insecurities and sharing them with your partner, while allowing space to validate each other’s vulnerabilities.

Unrealistic Relationship Expectation #2: “This relationship is about meeting MY needs.”

Living in an individualistic society, we can often place more emphasis on what I can get out of a relationship, or where our partner is failing to meet my needs.  

What I so often see as a marriage counselor and couples therapist is that both partners have needs. It is important for partners to understand how to meet each other’s needs in a way that provides safety and security in the relationship. I also believe that we can be so focused on what OUR needs are, that we fail to see what our partners are needing from us and wind up neglecting them.

Partnership requires togetherness. Togetherness requires the courage to see beyond yourself into another person’s world. Consider your partner’s perspective, what they need, and how you can fulfill them. Doing this can create a community dynamic in your relationship, where you know that you and your partner are looking out for one another, that you’re not in this alone.

Tip: Try spending a day focusing on filling your partner’s “love tank” by doing what makes them feel most loved without expecting anything in return.

Unrealistic Expectation #3: “You should be my everything.”

In my role as a marriage counselor and couples therapist, I’ve noticed this narrative increasing in the couples I’ve seen: a relationship expectation that their partner needs to be their everything.

This unrealistic expectation often leads to someone feeling lonely and hurt when their partner is unable to meet their every need. This mindset also puts an intense pressure on both partners to become something that is often unattainable.

I believe that, much like the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a community to keep a strong partnership. Having more people in your life besides just your partner, and a shared community where both partners’ feel safe and supported by a number of people, helps to lessen the pressure that you both have to be everything.  Having a community creates an environment for your partnership to flourish as you realize that it does not have to be just the two of you against the world.

Tip: Try spending time with friends both as a couple and individually to build up your community.

Have you had some expectations in a relationship, like the ones I talk about here, that have gotten in your way of having the kind of happy relationship you want? I hope that this article helped shed some light on them, and offered you some tips for how to break free of some unrealistic relationship expectations.

If I can do anything else to support you in creating a great relationship, you know where to find me!

Warmly,

Anastacia Sams, M.A., LMFTC

The Power of Praise

The Power of Praise

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Catch People Doing Something Right.

Did you know that you have the power to perk people up, appreciate their wonderful, unique selves, and make them feel good about what they’re doing? And… that you have the power to make yourself feel that way about YOU, too?

It’s as simple as noticing what you, and others, are doing right.

Something I’ve learned from years of being a therapist, a life coach, and a couples counselor (as well as a wife, mom, colleague and friend) is this: Noticing, and commenting approvingly on positive behaviors not only makes you and others feel good, it also encourages more of the same.

Too often, people try to create change in others — and themselves — through criticism. They only speak up when something is NOT working. This leads their partners to feel that they “can never do anything right” (which I hear about all the time in marriage counseling) and it leads them to feel badly about themselves, and even doubt their competence and worth (a common topic in the therapy and life coaching room). [For more on this subject, check out “Creating Self Confidence.”]

When people feel bad about themselves, or like they’re always going to disappoint their partners, it’s nearly impossible to muster up the energy and try harder to do better. It feels like it doesn’t matter anyway, so why try?

Have you ever trained a dog? Do you scream at it whenever it does something you disapprove of, and ignore the instances when it behaves beautifully? No! Exactly the opposite is true: When your pup obediently sits / lays down / comes to you on command you lavish it with praise and reward with a treat. “Who’s a good dog? Who’s the best doggie? You are the best doggie!”

In contrast, think about your own internal dialogue when you don’t do something just right: You miss your workout, eat the donut, or make a mistake at work. If you’re like a lot of people, your inner critic berates you, calls you names, brings up all the other times you disappointed, and paints a bleak future. [For more on how to get a handle on your inner critic, check out The Happiness Class].

Now, think about your inner dialogue when you did make it to the gym, ordered the salad (dressing on the side!), and did your work just right………. Crickets. Chirping. Most people glide right by their own awesomeness, and that’s a shame.

Same goes for your partner. It’s so easy to jump all over people, or automatically radiate disapproving energy when others fail to meet our expectations. It’s also very easy to completely miss all the times — which are probably most of the times — that your partner is kind and generous.

You could certainly indulge the, “Why should I compliment them for just doing what they should be doing?” school of thought. But you’re probably reading this article because you want a next-level type of relationship. If that’s the case I invite you to imagine what kind of love-fest might ensue were you to slather on the praise and positivity when your partner is actually being great.

A simpler way to connect with the power of praise is to think about how YOU feel when your efforts are noticed, your specialness is admired by others, and your gifts are celebrated. It’s affirming. It’s validating. It makes you feel like you’re on the right track, and that you should keep doing more of what you’re doing, right?

Here’s one from me to you: I think that it’s fantastic that you’re browsing around online for articles that will help you build yourself up, feel happier, and have better relationships with others. Not everyone does that. Many just complain about their circumstances or blame other people.

But you understand that knowledge is power, and you’re open to new ideas. You are aware that you’re in control of your life, and you have the power to shape the results you get. You get that what you do, matters — and you’re committed to putting in your best effort.

That is a pretty great thing about you. I hope that you remind yourself of that fact as you go about the rest of your day — tossing around positivity and praise like you were the mayor of happy-town.

Much love,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. While you’re at it, try this one with a kid. Comment on something they did well, (like, “Good job listening!” or “I really like it when you look right into my eyes when I’m talking to you!”) and they will not just puff up with pride, but often fall all over themselves to get more of your approval. They’re hungry for it.

P.P.S. Everyone is.

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Seth Bender is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

Stop Jumping to Conclusions

As a marriage counselor, couples therapist, and married guy, I know that this happens to anybody who is in a relationship – you get into an argument with your partner, and your mind starts racing with thoughts that seem to automatically pop into your brain. In the therapy world, we often call these thoughts “perceptions.” Perceptions are mental images which are triggered by emotions, which then influence how we act towards our partner.

Negative Perceptions = Negative Reactions

If these perceptions of ourselves and our partners are negative, then they might manifest in behaviors that can be destructive to a relationship, especially if they get repeated. But how does this process happen, and more to the point, how can you help manage and control these perceptions in your own relationship?

What’s Your Inner Dialogue?

To understand what perceptions feel like, imagine the initial thoughts that run through your head when find yourself in a heated argument with your partner. For example, do you assume your partner is always losing control? Do you think nothing you do will ever be good enough? Do you assume your partner is running away or abandoning you emotionally? Do you think you have to fix the situation any way you can?

These are all examples of negative perceptions that can then influence how you then behave and communicate with your partner. If your thoughts are negative in that moment, then you will likely behave accordingly in a way that will push your partner away, not connect them to you.

Our Thoughts Create Our Feelings, Which Lead to Reactions

Another important point to remember is that perceptions serve as the bridge between emotion and responding to that emotion. In other words, perceptions are most often caused by anger or frustration — secondary emotions that are fueled by fear and pain. From there, perceptions seem almost automatic. If perceptions are fueled by negative emotions, then they will often turn into negative behaviors. [For more information on the Thought > Feeling > Action response cycle, check out the “Happy Mind” unit of The Happiness Class.)

When your thoughts about yourself or your partner are negative in the moment, then you may feel emotionally insecure and unsafe, and any negative behavior that arises from that is the body’s natural response to feeling emotionally threatened.

But there’s something very interesting to think about in terms on negative perceptions – they’re most often not true!

Challenge Your Automatic Thoughts

For example, remind yourself that your partner is responding to their own fears and is likely not trying to run away from you, you don’t have to fix every problem in a relationship, and you ARE good enough, even if your negative perceptions feel true in the moment, especially when triggered by anger or hurt. Even though the thoughts are in our head, they feel very real and we respond to them in kind.

Fortunately, there are ways to be able to break the cycle and fight these negative thoughts.

Fight Negative Perceptions With Empathy

The antidote to negative perceptions lies with empathy and empathic communication, meaning being able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand why they may be acting the way they are.

Empathy can be built in a number of different ways – listening to and validating your partner, sharing softer, deeper emotions with one another, and understanding that your partner’s behavior may be caused by unmet emotional needs and a lack of emotional safety that might have little to do with you are all examples of empathy — and all ways of breaking negative perceptions proactively and in the moment.

Know that a partner’s reactions may seem irrational to you, but emotion is often not rational, and in those moments, try to take a step back. If you can validate and understand your partner’s true pain, those negative perceptions will become less intense and you’ll be able to access kindness to your partner in the moment. Your positive thoughts will connect you to your partner, not push you away.

Remember, you can feel empathy for yourself too! Perfection is never attainable – you are human and you will make mistakes, as your positive and negative experiences help build how you respond to stress and perceived threats. People respond to negative perceptions in attachment styles that feel safest, and you are no different. You have permission to not be perfect!

You’re Not Alone

All that being said, negative perceptions can become overwhelming. If you’d like support in learning how to manage your thoughts and find more helpful responses in moments of stress, a good therapist or coach can help you access your strengths to work on resolving underlying pain and controlling your thoughts. As those thoughts are connected to what has already happened, then healing and coming to terms with the past may be key in helping you move forward.

The brain controls emotions, but the brain can also play tricks on you! Know that even though negative thoughts in the moment feel real and overwhelming, they are often not true. You have the power to manage and change those thoughts, and to change your relationship to one that you always return to for comfort and safety.

All the best,

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Do You Have Overly High Expectations For Your Relationship?

Do You Have Overly High Expectations For Your Relationship?

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

How to Love The Relationship You Have

Everyone wants their relationship to be the best it can be, and it’s a good thing when both of you are striving to be good partners for each other. Having a great relationship takes two people working to make it so.

And yet, it’s also possible to have too high of expectations for a relationship, and this can cause its own set of problems. One of the things I’ve learned as a marriage counselor, couples therapist and dating coach is that when people have unrealistic ideas about what their relationship “should” be like it can both sabotage new relationships before they get a chance to grow into something great, and it can also sink long-term relationships.

Unrealistic relationship expectations are often rooted in core beliefs about relationships that just aren’t true. Here are some of the most common misperceptions that many people have about what relationships “should” be, and why it can lead to relationship problems when you buy into them.

Relationship Misperception #1: “Chemistry” Is The Most Important Thing

Of course, you deserve to have a relationship where you feel attracted to your partner, you click intellectually, you feel compatible, you have fun together, and there’s a spark between you. However, successful long-term relationships require other things too, including trust, loyalty, commitment, communication, emotional maturity, team work, empathy, and much, much more. We all know this intellectually, but still, many people will overlook these other positive relationship attributes if they’re not feeling the “chemistry” they expect to feel. 

This is unfortunate because feelings of “chemistry” (which is often simply a cocktail of sexual interest plus anxiety) generally has nothing to do with whether or not someone is compatible with you, or of good character, or is going to be a good choice for a long-term partner. As we all know, it’s possible to feel intense chemistry for a person who would make a terrible partner. Yet the belief that one needs to feel “chemistry” or “butterflies” in a good relationship persists… and creates enormous problems in relationships.

Overprioritizing chemistry can lead to people to become emotionally entangled with romantic interests who may not be compatible, reliable, or trustworthy — just exciting. Many people on a quest for chemistry have found themselves terribly hurt when the partners who they felt intense chemistry with wound up not being even remotely close to who they really wanted or needed to have in a healthy, long-term relationship.

For married or committed couples, a nasty consequence of getting stuck on “chemistry” (or lack of) is when people in long-term relationships don’t feel angsty butterflies for each other anymore… and take that to mean something is wrong with their relationship.

The Fix: 

Actively remind yourself of all the positive qualities you want in a partner, above and beyond “the feels.” Especially if you’re dating, when you meet someone who’s kind, considerate, thoughtful, interesting and emotionally mature — but who maybe doesn’t inflame your passions — consider slowing down, and giving them a chance to grow on you. (I’ll have some advice for you committed couples in a moment — keep reading.)

Relationship Misperception #2: Imagining That Other Couples Are Happier Than You Are

Another misperception that can easily damage a relationship believing that you should be feeling happier and more satisfied in your relationship — and that other couples are having that experience. In our image-driven age, it’s very easy to scroll through Instagram and see posts about the peak moments that other couples are having: The vacations, flowers, gifts, and spontaneous declarations of love for each other look so great, don’t they?

No one posts selfies of themselves locked in the bathroom crying after a terrible fight, of their partners drinking too much and playing video-games until the wee hours, or failing to follow through on promises of unloading the dishwasher. [For more on this subject check out,  “Stop Comparing Yourself To Others.“]

It’s therefore easy to imagine that other couples are always happy, in love, and doing interesting things together. Combined with what we’re led to believe good relationships should be through movies and shows, it distorts one’s sense of what the reality of a normal relationship is.

I recently met with a couple who I asked to rate their sense of how healthy and strong their relationship currently was. They both rated it as a “7.” I smiled and said, “that’s great!” They both looked at me like I was crazy. They said, “A seven? Isn’t that bad?” That led to an important conversation about their expectations for how their relationship should feel, as compared to the reality of what a healthy, happy, long-term relationship actually feels like when you’re living in it day-to-day.

What is true about all relationships is that they’re a mixed bag. Yes, a healthy relationship should have its share of positive, enjoyable moments and happy memories. And it’s also true that the day-to-day reality of a long-term relationship or marriage is largely based around the stuff of life: Running errands, schlepping kids around, making dinner, dealing with the stress of work, managing a home, and trying to fit fun into whatever time is left over. No couple is having meaningful, magical moments with each other all day every day. But if it’s pretty good, most of the time, that’s worth celebrating.

It’s also true that inevitably — even in fantastic relationships — there will be things about our partners that will be disappointing. There is conflict in all relationships. There are moments when you needed something and your partner doesn’t respond to you the way you want them to. There may be times when you feel bored, or annoyed. Your partner will fail you sometimes… and you will fail and disappoint them. You’re two imperfect humans, prone to moods, quirks, and your own baggage, both trying to have a relationship with each other. 

But imagining that other couples don’t deal with the same things that you do can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety about your relationship, and that can have a negative impact on your partnership. 

The Fix:

A much better strategy is to turn your attention to all that is right in your relationship. Be generous with your praise, and actively appreciative of all the ways that your partner makes you happy. Recognize that you’re both human, and release the idea that either of you are going to be perfectly perfect all of the time. Also, don’t get tricked into believing that anyone else’s life or relationship is better than yours. Instead, remind yourself that there’s always more to the story than what you see on the surface.

Relationship Misperception # 3: Using Your Feelings As a Barometer Of The Relationship

I cannot tell you how many couples I’ve talked to who have arrived in couples counseling with this one chief complaint: “We don’t feel ‘in love’ anymore.” These are often people in 10+ year marriages who believe that something has gone terribly wrong because they do not the excited, tingly feelings they used to. (See “chemistry” above).  

What many couples don’t understand is that early stage romantic love is a transient experience that usually lasts about a year or two. This is often experienced as a craving to be with your beloved, thinking about them all the time, seeing them in the best possible light, and feeling happy and excited when they are around.

Believe it or not, there is a biological basis for the “crazy about you” feeling. When romantic love does its job, it serves to bring people close enough together for a long enough time for a deeper kind of love known as “attachment” to grow.

Attachment is a more mature, enduring kind of love. It’s a secure, tranquil, peaceful experience that is characterized by a general sense of affection and a good feeling when you’re around each other. But secure attachment also makes it okay to be apart. A securely attached couple can have their own lives, and still be profoundly attached to each other.

The problems occur when people begin neglecting their relationship because they don’t feel the way the used to. Over time they can come to believe that they’ve grown apart, they have nothing in common, and that it’s never going to feel like it used to. Those beliefs can get in the way of couples rekindling the spark in their relationship, and creating pleasure, fun, and enjoyment with each other again.

The Fix:

Wise couples know that feelings of love come and go, and that the intense feelings of romantic love they felt in the first couple of years of their relationship are unique to that time of life. They don’t make the mistake of believing that because they don’t feel the way they did in the early stages of their relationship that something has gone wrong; they view it as evidence of a more mature, enduring type of relationship.

Understanding that allows wise, happy long-term couples to focus on the truth: That true love is not a feeling at all, but a choice. We don’t passively feel love. We act with love. And, paradoxically, our active, intentional acts of love can increase the positive feelings our partners have for us and vice versa.

Putting energy into your relationship, and finding ways of connecting meaningfully with your partner can help you both start enjoying each other again. Being generous and finding ways of actively showing your love are key. Doing new things together helps. Many couples also benefit from strengthening their long-term relationship by constantly finding ways to improve their communication, enhance their partnership, and most importantly, resolving hurt feelings misunderstandings quickly, before they evolve into resentments. That’s why you find the strongest, most successful couples have often had a course or two of couples counseling over the years.

Also, as you both evolve over the years, you might consider introducing yourselves to each other again by sharing your thoughts, your feelings and your world. Remember that over time, you’re not the same person that you used to be — and getting to know the new you can make things feel exciting all over again. [For more on this check out, “How to Feel In Love With Your Partner“]

Misperception # 4: Believing That Your Partner Should Be Your “Everything”

Another thing that can create problems in a relationship is having a belief that your partner should serve perfectly (or close to it) in many relational domains.

For example, we want our partners to be witty, pleasant and entertaining; emotionally mature; reliable and loving parents; good listeners; the best friend who always has our back and who will talk to us for hours; our charismatic, attractive and fun social partners; our enthusiastic traveling companions; motivators and accountability partners; excellent managers of time and money; to enjoy the same hobbies and activities that we do; our number one fan and supporter; always on top of things around the house; good providers and hard workers; perhaps our business partners; oh and intense and erotic lovers too.

No pressure, right?

These expectations can put a major strain on a relationship. When our partners fail to be what we believe they should be in one or more of these domains, as they invariably will, it can lead to perceptions that “something is wrong.” What is often the truth is that our partners will (and should) meet our needs in some, possibly even many, of these areas… but rarely all of them. 

For example, I recently met with a couple who has so many strengths and a great relationship overall. And yet the female partner was unhappy that her husband was introverted in social situations and not more talkative and outgoing. They had many fights about this, and it was damaging to their relationship.

However, our discussion led to a productive conversation about how to shift away from focusing on how they were being “failed” by the other person, and instead, focusing on having love and respect for the person that their partners were instead of who they wanted them to be.

For her, it also led to an important shift away from, “What are you doing for me?” towards, “What does it feel like for you to be with me?” This allowed her to refocus on how she could be loving and supportive of her husband during social situations that were anxiety provoking for him. (Which, paradoxically, enabled him to feel more confident and safe in these situations… which helped him to open up and be more engaging socially!)

The Fix:

Considering that we’re all mere mortals, and it’s unrealistic for any of us to expect that our partner should be all things, a much better alternative is to instead put our energy into appreciating the unique strengths and gifts our partners bring to the relationship. This makes it easier to downplay some of the things that maybe your partner is not as gifted with.

Adopting an attitude of tolerance and acceptance towards them (as opposed to criticism) will help you build the kind of positive, mutually appreciative relationship that you want. It will also help you make emotional deposits that increase the likelihood that your partner will be more accepting of you, too. [For more on this, check out “How to Strengthen Your Relationship.“]

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I hope that you experiment with some of the “fixes” I’ve shared with you in this article. Doing so will allow you to take some of the pressure off yourself and your partner so that you can both get more enjoyment from your relationship.

If you try any of these ideas, let me know how it goes!

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships

How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Is It Time To Let Down Your Walls?

Not too long ago I shared some advice on Bustle.com about “What to do if you’re having a hard time being vulnerable in a relationship.” I thought this was such a great topic, and one that so many people struggle with, that I should share more advice on how to use the power of vulnerability to transform your relationships here too.

It’s easy to think of “vulnerability” in negative terms, because it conjures images of being open to hurt. However, what I know from many years as a couples therapist and marriage counselor, is that when it comes to your relationships, vulnerability is (paradoxically) the key to having closer, more intimate, and ultimately more satisfying connections with other people. Conversely, if you keep your guard up all the time, you’ll be missing out on having truly meaningful and authentic connections with the most important people in your life.

What does it mean to be vulnerable in your relationships? 

As Brene Brown discusses in her amazing TED Talk about the power of vulnerability: Being vulnerable means sharing the most important, authentic parts of yourself with someone who matters to you — and risking rejection.  Being vulnerable means “being seen” for who and what you are, and exposing yourself to the potential for hurt. While this may sound intimidating, the alternative is often worse: Being closed off can lead to loneliness, and feeling unseen, and unknown by others.

Do You Keep Your Guard Up in Relationships?

If so, it’s understandable. It is much safer, emotionally, to manage your image, keep the mask on, and not let yourself care. Particularly in the hyper-curated era of social media, there’s a strong pull to only show what is perfect or enviable about your life. But being vulnerable means showing someone else that maybe you’re not perfect, maybe you’re not always okay, and maybe you do have some worries, insecurities, or pain.

The scariest thing about vulnerability for many people boils down to this: When you really, really care about someone else, and want them to love you as much as you love them, it can be terrifying to allow yourself to be truly seen by them. Because… what if they don’t want you anymore, after they know the whole truth? Or what if you allow yourself to lean on someone else emotionally, and they fail you, or reject you?

Being vulnerable does mean exposing yourself to the potential for hurt or rejection. And, at the same time, risking vulnerability is also opening the door to the kind of relationship you long for: One built on authenticity, emotional intimacy, and a deep connection.

Why It’s Important To Open Up To Your Partner

Another thing to consider, in addition to YOUR feelings of closeness and connection, are those of your partner. As a marriage counselor and couples therapist, one of the relationship issues I most often hear about from couples having problems is that at least one person feels that their partner is closed off, and uncommunicative. They want to understand how their partner feels, what they think about, what they care about, and their hopes and dreams… and yet feel cut off from that.

I can tell you that many, if not most, relationship fights are really not about the things that people are fighting about, like how much money was spent, or whether or not someone wants to have sex, or “the tone” being used, or whether or not someone followed through with whatever they said they were going to do. Relationship fights are about not feeling cared for, feeling unheard, feeling disrespected, and feeling disconnected.

When couples are emotionally intimate and feel close to each other, they are much more resilient, more tolerant of each other, and generally kinder and more respectful. When true, deep connection is present, there’s just nothing to fight about. (Instead, you can have constructive conversations about how to get on the same page and solve problems together).

That’s the power of vulnerability in relationships.

On the other hand, when people are not able to be vulnerable in relationships and trust themselves and their partners enough to allow themselves to truly be seen, relationships remain superficial. Yes, you may have a companion and a social partner, but the core of your relationship — emotional intimacy, empathy and responsiveness — feels barren.

Over time, these types of relationships tend to become stagnant. Or, if people have feelings inside of themselves that they are not communicating about vulnerably (and consequently, the needs they have are not getting acknowledged or met) they can also start to believe that the relationship itself is not sustainable.

It’s such a bind: On the one hand, in order to have a better relationship, you need to talk about how you feel and take emotional risks with your partner. That feels scary, and many people avoid it. On the other hand, not saying things out loud feels safer in the moment, but in the absence of communication, relationships grow strained and fights start brewing under the surface… which makes it feel less safe to talk about your truth in a vulnerable way.

The Consequences of Keeping Emotional Walls Up

Over time, in the absence of vulnerability and emotional intimacy, relationships become increasingly dissatisfying for both partners. This makes it less likely that either person will feel safe and secure enough to have heartfelt conversations that will bring them back together again. Instead, people make cutting side comments or show each other their distress through behaviors. (Behaviors and comments that are often angering or unattractive to their partner, pushing them further away as opposed to drawing them closer).

One of the primary benefits of marriage counseling or couples therapy is that the presence of a compassionate, knowledgeable couples counselor creates a “safe space” where people can be more vulnerable and open. With a third party holding open the door to communication, and shielding both parties from the emotional reactivity that will turn a heartfelt conversation into a vicious fight in a matter of seconds, couples can start seeing each other, hearing each other, and understanding each other at a deeper level.

By moving back into a space of vulnerability and authenticity (or for some couples, creating that kind of emotional intimacy for the first time) partners can then establish a stronger connection, empathy, and emotional safety that will help them solve problems together and increase their love for each other.

6 Tips To Help You Be More Vulnerable In Your Relationships

1: Self Awareness. The most important first step in creating a more emotionally intimate relationship, based on authenticity and vulnerability, is knowing yourself. You cannot communicate your truth if you yourself don’t know what it is. It sounds odd, but many people are awash in nebulous feelings or have core beliefs or automatic thoughts that never fully enter their consciousness as coherent thoughts. They just react. Understanding how you really feel is a prerequisite for being able to communicate it to others.

2: Clarity.  Until you have language for your inner experience, it remains unknown — even to you. If your relationship is currently in a space where it feels fragile, it may not feel safe enough to talk through your feelings with your partner until you arrive at the truth. In these cases, you might consider journaling, letter writing, or talking with a counselor or coach until you’re clear about how you’re feeling. Then, you can express it to your partner in a way that they can hear.

3: Timing. If you are already clear about how you’re feeling and what you want to express, the next most important step in helping yourself be vulnerable is, believe it or not, timing. Too many people experiment with vulnerability at a time when their partner is not expecting it, in the same mindset, or even in a place where they are present enough to be responsive. For example, someone might see their spouse in the kitchen, alone, unloading the dishwasher, and take that opportunity to start talking about something really important to them (often to their back). The preoccupied spouse may not understand the importance of this disclosure, or respond in a thoughtful way. Consequently, many people feel rejected and hurt, and come away thinking that their “vulnerability experiment” was a bad idea.

4: Be Explicit. If you want to talk about something important, make it known. Invite your partner to sit down with you, without distractions, and then let them know that you want to talk about some important things. Let them know that you feel apprehensive about being vulnerable before you start sharing. Talk out loud about your emotional process, and how important it is to you to feel emotionally safe with them. Say things like, “Just the fact that you’re sitting here looking into my eyes while I’m talking to you means the world to me,” so they know how to be present with you in a way that feels good to you.

5: Fight The Fear. If you start feeling apprehensive or like shutting down when you’re talking about your feelings, you can say that out loud too. Remind yourself (and perhaps, even your partner) that as hard as it can be to “go there” it is also the path to a deeper, more intimate connection. Be brave and honest. You might even consider saying out loud that what you’re saying feels scary or hard. Even disclosing that to your partner can make you feel less alone, and help them help you be more vulnerable.

6: Help Your Partner Be a Good Listener.  Most importantly, ask for what you need. (As much as we’d like to wish that our partners could or should “just know” how to respond to us perfectly… they won’t unless you tell them.) When you share your feelings, let your partner know that you don’t need to be “fixed” or have your problems solved. The goal is not resolution, but connection. Communicating openly with your partner about what helps you feel safer to share will pave the way for easier, more heartfelt communication and the emotional security that you both desire.

How To Get Your Partner To Open Up To You

Sometimes in relationships, you’re not the one that needs to open up. Instead, you’re feeling frustrated because your partner feels closed off to you. You try to get them to talk to you about important things, or share their feelings… and it’s like talking to a wall. Here are a couple of tips to help your partner feel safer and more comfortable to talk authentically to you. [Also read: How to Communicate With a Withdrawn Partner]

If someone isn’t “opening up” with you, one of two things is typically happening:

1: They don’t feel emotionally safe with you. This is a hard one to consider, but it’s easy to unintentionally come across as an emotionally unsafe person, especially if you’ve been feeling frustrated or hurt by your relationship. When your partner does tell you about things that are true for them, are you meeting their disclosures with caring and empathy? Or is there a chance that you are judging them, and imposing your values on them? (This can be true if their truth is something that you disagree with, or wish were different.) Show your partner that they are safe with you, by accepting them for who they are.

2: Their inner experience is not the same as yours. People differ in their personalities, in their emotional awareness, in their desire for emotional intimacy, and propensity for psychological-mindedness. Not to bring gender into this, but many times women feel frustrated with partners who they perceive as “not opening up.” When truthfully, men don’t relate the same way women do. Women establish an emotional connection in relationships by deepening, reciprocal layers of personal disclosure. Men don’t always do that. [More info: “Understanding Men,” on the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast]

Furthermore, many men are socialized out of having feelings and thinking too deeply about their emotional process. They may therefore, genuinely, not have as much to say about their inner experience. They may be happy and content in “doing” life rather than talking about it. In order to have an emotionally safe relationship, that needs to be okay too. Emotional intimacy and vulnerability can be expressed in many ways besides face-to-face conversations. Sexuality, sharing finances, making sacrifices for each other, developing shared priorities, and committing to your partnership are also all expressions of vulnerability — many times, even more powerful than vulnerabilities disclosed in words.

When you practice tolerance and acceptance for the way your partner shows vulnerability and intimacy, it increases the emotional safety in your relationship. Emotional safety creates an environment that cultivates vulnerability and intimacy, helping you continually grow closer and more connected.

I hope these ideas help you and your partner create the kind of strong, satisfying relationship that you both crave.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Growing Self Counseling & Coaching