We all grow up in different environments with different standards for how to communicate. Yet, we often expect others to understand and conform to the way that we grew up. When it comes to communication in a relationship, one of the most common difficulties is learning the partner’s different styles and communication patterns.
For instance, if one spouse grew up in a house in which no one speaks about their feelings, with their parents demonstrating a model of bottling up emotions, they will have a very difficult time communicating with someone who comes from a family in which everyone shares their guts and puts everything on the table.
One Client’s Experience
I once worked with a client who desperately wanted her husband to open up to her. She felt like every time she tried to get him to share his feelings, he would clam up. She simply couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t share his feelings with her if he loved her. ‘
After lengthy conversation, it became clear that this couple came from very different backgrounds. The wife grew up in a family where expressing feelings was common-practice. The husband came from a family in which sharing emotions and feeling pain was considered weakness.
What made matters particularly fascinating is that what drew her to him was his confidence and steady nature. What drew him to her was her free-flowing lifestyle and ability to express what was on her mind. Though they admired each other for these traits, they didn’t recognize them as fundamental parts of personality. The traits wouldn’t just turn off because they were married.
She continued to put her feelings out there, and he continued to be quiet and minimally emotive. Eventually, he began to feel like she was suffocating him to get at his feelings, and she began to feel unloved.
Coming to a Solution
We worked on her willingness to give her husband the space needed in order for him to open up. At first, she was resistant because she had a hard time understanding why someone who loves her wouldn’t simply open up to her. Even after understanding that no one in his family shares feelings, she still wondered why he wouldn’t share his feelings with her.
I shared a parable to help the wife understand. When lobsters grow, they become too large for their exoskeletons. To counter this, they must undergo a process called “molting”, where they shed their exoskeletons and have soft shells until they grow more and their exoskeleton becomes stronger. In order to go through this process, the lobster must be in a place where they feel safe.
I asked her to imagine how a growing lobster, who needs the feeling of safety, would respond to having a fellow lobster continuously stand next to it? Probably not too safe. Similar logic could be applied to her husband, given his environmental upbringing. It could easily be that he wants to share all of his feelings, but he is scared of this new territory. He needs the space to feel safe sharing. If he doesn’t feel safe, he simply won’t share. If you stare at him while he tries to feel out a safe space, he won’t feel comfortable. What you need to do is give him the room he needs to open up, and, with time, he will.
In relationships, each party comes in with different learned communication skills. It is imperative to take time to learn how our partners comfortably communicate. Sometimes, the tendency is to aggressively chase information, but often times, the best way to learn about someone is by giving them the space they need.
What obstacles have you found in communicating with your spouse? Did you put any practices in place to facilitate healthy communication? Please share your comments, questions and advice below.