So many of us suppress our feelings when it comes to expressing ourselves to our partners. Maybe conflict was avoided in our families of origin, with a high penalty if we didn’t follow this unspoken rule. Or maybe gender expectations made us believe that our feelings did not count. But there is another reason, leading to comments like these:
“I was obviously upset when I got home from work. I’d had a hellacious day. Finally, a few hours later, my partner noticed and asked me what was up. At that point, I exploded.”
“Couldn’t she tell that I was frustrated that there were dirty dishes in the sink? It was so obvious to me. Yet she was oblivious! And I got resentful, which meant that when she asked me a question about something else, I lost it.”
“I thought he was in tune with me. But he just did not seem to notice that I’d been sad ever since we saw our friends’ new baby. A few days went by and my resentment grew and grew. By the time he said something, I just snapped.”
Have you experienced situations where you’ve been upset about something and your partner hasn’t noticed? Have you expected your partner to be in tune with you and notice that you’ve had a bad day? Have you stuffed frustrations about this expectation down to the point of an escalated response when your partner “finally” notices that something is going on? If so – welcome to the club of expecting your partner to read your mind.
We all fall prey to this expectation. Let me call it a syndrome: expecting-too-much-of-your-partner-itis. Because this is expecting too much. Most of us are not mind readers.
So often, however, we expect our partners to be mind readers, and when they aren’t, we feel unseen. We feel unvalidated. We feel invisible. We feel that our thoughts and feelings don’t matter. We feel disconnected.
This creates a vicious cycle. The more disconnected we feel, the more upset we get. The more upset we get, the more we expect our partner to magically understand and reach out and get it. When they don’t, we feel even more disconnected. And around and around we go, until our upset-ness has escalated into a beast far more potent than our original issue.
At this point, we have three choices of how to deal with this beast – to either explode at our partner when they finally do notice that something is up, to explode at our partner for not noticing, or to continue to stuff this beast down into a pressure cooker just waiting to explode. If the explosion does not manifest towards our partner, it can be displaced onto others, or manifest towards our own selves, resulting in depression, anxiety, or even physical symptoms.
So – what to do?
The remedy is deceptively simple: Speak your mind. Speak your emotions. Communicate with your partner what’s going on before it becomes a raging beast of frustration and disconnection. But the key is to speak it in a way that can be heard without generating defensiveness.
How to speak your mind and emotions to your partner in this way is often the focus of couples counseling, especially around issues that you know will generate conflict. Here is a brief tutorial (taken from Gottman and Rosenberg):
Start with how you’re feeling. For example, I’m feeling sad, I’m feeling frustrated, I’m feeling upset.
Next explain when you feel this way. For example, when I see you turn away when I ask you a question, when I see dirty dishes in the sink, when I’ve done this particular task and you haven’t noticed.
Tack onto this why you feel this way. For example, it makes me feel invisible, it makes me feel unappreciated, it makes me feel disconnected, it makes me feel unheard.
Finally, ask for a specific, concrete thing that you need in the moment. For example, I really need a hug right now, I would love it if you would help me with this by doing this, I need us to sit down and figure out who does what, I need a weekly night out with you, can you please run out to the store right now and get this, I really need you to take the kids on Saturday.
So – putting all of these together, we get statements like the following:
“I feel overwhelmed when there is so much going on with me and it seems like you just don’t notice. It makes me feel invisible. I would love it if you would check in with me when I come home from work.”
“I feel frustrated when I come home and the task you said you would do isn’t done, because then I feel I need to do it on top of all the other stuff I have to do. Are you up to doing it by tomorrow morning?”
“I’m so sad when I see our friends having children because I’m just not sure our relationship will work out, we’ve been fighting so much lately! I would really like it if we went to couples counseling.”
The power of stating your thoughts and feelings and needs before you get upset that your partner hasn’t noticed cannot be overstated. It prevents the beast of expecting your partner to mind read from forming. It prevents the stuffing down of feelings.
Moreover, it gives a concrete need for your partner to focus on and negotiate if need be. You might request your partner do a promised task the next morning. They might say, “I really cannot do that then, I have a work meeting at 7 am,” and then the two of you can work on a compromise. Or, you might state that you really need your partner to take the kids on Saturday. They might say, “What time were you thinking?” and you’re well on your way to getting your need met.
Or, maybe you say to your partner, “I am feeling so upset right now because work was hellacious and I magically want you to read my mind and come give me what I need, which is a long hug! Can you do that for me right now?” Try it and see what happens.