Won't your partner want to hear about your troubles?
“I didn’t tell her about it because I didn’t want to upset her.”
I heard this a couple of years ago from one of my clients. And I’ve heard almost the identical words over and over again in the past few weeks (sometimes her, sometimes him).
So, what is not being talked about? In this case it was a feeling of despair. But I have also heard about other feelings that haven’t been shared – anxiety, anger or fear, for example.
The client often goes on: “We’ve been getting on a bit better since we came to counselling and I know s/he has got a lot on at the moment and is quite stressed. So I decided it was best to keep it to myself.”
It’s such a common reaction. And, in one way, completely understandable.
If you’re a person that’s not comfortable talking about your feelings, and you’ve been having a bad time, you could well bottle it up. That gnawing, anxious feeling in your stomach is pretty familiar. You may feel ashamed by your “weakness”.
The way you’ve generally dealt with it for most of your life is to try to ignore it, distract yourself, then move on. Push it down and put up a defensive wall so you don’t have to confront it.
The trouble with this is that it stays with you. One of my clients describes it as “festering”. Then after a while maybe it goes away and you get on with your life. Until it recurs and you experience the pain again.
As a therapist, what I immediately think when I hear this is: would your partner actually have LIKED to hear about your problem?
It’s true, she (or he) may well be going through a tough time at the moment. Many of us are struggling in this pandemic. But the main reason couples are coming to counselling is that the connection between them is somehow damaged. So maybe one partner would actually WELCOME a chance to hear about something troubling the other. It would bring them closer together. Sharing difficult emotions tends to bond couples, not push them apart.
Paul* came to see me a couple of years ago because he felt deeply troubled about his relationship with his family. He told me how dark his thoughts had been. He had even been contemplating taking his own life.
What was the point of going on, he wondered. He felt useless: a failure as a husband and a father of two young children; and also as a husband. The children always seemed to go to their mother for comfort, not him. He felt rejected. He revealed he’d had these feelings of worthlessness for years, even before he was married.
I told him how courageous I felt he had been to open up about feeling suicidal. He’d never spoken about it before. Then I asked: “Do you think Becky would have liked to hear about this? About how desperately sad you are feeling?”
He thought about it. There was a silence. Then he said quietly: “Yes, she probably would.”
It turned out to be an important moment. He decided to share with her what was troubling him rather than protecting her from his dark thoughts.
She’d suspected something was badly wrong and was distressed to hear what he had been going through. Yet she was also relieved and happy that he had summoned up the courage to tell her. Now she could help by listening and showing the empathy he needed – and reassuring him that she truly loved and valued him as a partner and a father to their children. They felt much closer to each other.
It was a powerful step towards repairing their marriage.
The willingness to open up to your partner is hugely helpful. If you think you are going to be listened to kindly; if your partner isn’t going to judge you; if you aren’t going to be met by criticism; in a word, if you think you are SAFE to tell them about your pain… then you are on the path to a closer, more connected relationship.
*names and other details have been changed to protect confidentiality