(4 minute read)
The ability to share our opinions and feelings with our partner is an indicator of a healthy relationship. Doing so builds a partnership that is intimate, respectful, and meaningful. It allows us to make decisions together, discuss important issues, and plan for a future.
However, many couples struggle in this area. Instead of sharing opinions, they find themselves fighting or engaged in power struggles. Others find their attempts to have meaningful conversation ignored or shut down. And some couples don’t even attempt to communicate on this level.
If either of these seems familiar, you are not alone. This article describes how to express feelings in a way that is more likely to lead to engagement and empathic responses from your partner.
Signs that you might not be expressing yourself properly
When serious discussions frequently lead to arguments, it could be that one partner is not expressing themselves skillfully. Another sign is when you have little to no disagreements or arguments – perhaps believing you agree on everything. Or, you feel a sense of resignation and find yourself asking, “what’s the point of even trying?”. This can be a sign that you are mentally checked out of the relationship. Another indicator is when you frequently feel misunderstood, angry, or resentful toward your partner.
Two additional reasons that deserve special mention are feeling afraid to express an opinion or feeling like you don’t have a voice in the relationship. While these could be due to a lifelong habit of sacrificing your own needs, it could be that you are experiencing an emotionally abusive relationship.
If either of these signs are present, I would strongly recommend speaking with a marriage counselor or therapist.
Benefits of Knowing How to Express Feelings in a Relationship
In every long-term relationship, there are many joint decisions to make and differences of opinion to consider. Knowing how to express your feelings will:
- promote cooperation so that you can work as a team
- guide you to communicate openly, honestly and clearly
- reduce defensiveness in your partner
- give you the confidence to raise difficult topics
While your partner is responsible for their side of the conversation, the strategies below, devised by Dr. Robert Scuka, an expert on intimate communication, increase the chances of your partner responding empathically.
Balancing Honesty & Compassion
Honesty and compassion should guide your words. First, you must speak with honesty so that you are authentic and faithful to your experience, feelings, and self-identity. Secondly, you must also show compassion toward your partner to avoid them becoming defensive. Balancing the two is difficult, particularly when you feel strongly about the topic.
How to Express Feelings in a Relationship in 7 Steps
- State that you have something to discuss and agree on a mutually convenient time to do so. Many people feel alarmed, particularly men, when hearing their partners say, “We need to talk.”. It is more helpful to involve your partner in deciding on a convenient time to talk.
- Begin with a compliment directed at your partner and the issue you wish to discuss. For example, you could say, “I really respect how much importance you put on family…”, before proposing a vacation without extended family.
- Show empathy towards your partner’s feelings on the issue. This demonstrates compassion and validates their feelings. It also invites them to be more open and honest. For example, saying, “I know you were excited to have your parents visit once we got settled in Texas and may see this as another delay…”.
- Describe your feelings on the issue with honesty and clarity. It is useful to prepare what you want to say when you are feeling calm. Difficult discussions affect us physiologically and nudge us toward a fight-flight state. Preparation will help you stay calm and focused on the topic and avoid getting sidetracked.
- Use words that portray your subjective experience, rather than what objectively happened. Try not to make any claim to what happened with statements like “you said…” and “you were so angry…”. Do not make any claim to superior memory, insight, or morality. Such statements are almost guaranteed to cause defensiveness and arguments. Instead, use “I” statements such as, “I felt ignored” or “From my perspective…”. It is helpful to anticipate and accept that your partner will likely have a different experience of the same event. Don’t automatically disregard it. Listen empathically.
- When referring to your partner, refer only to specific behaviors and do not make comments that judge character or their commitment to the relationship. Complaining about behavior is okay, but criticizing someone’s character is unfair and counterproductive.
- Be specific with requests for change. It is easier to describe what we don’t like than to give redirection on what we would like. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your partner should know what you want. Think about any changes that would benefit yourself, your partner, and the relationship. Discuss them.
Once you have expressed yourself following the guidelines above, your partner should try their best to give an empathic response. You would then switch roles. Your partner gets a turn to express their feelings while you listen and try to respond with empathy (using the guidelines here).
Practice/Be Patient and Seek Help if necessary
Learning how to communicate in a relationship takes a lot of work, but is worth the effort. Acquiring these skills will help you on your journey together. If you and your partner struggle to communicate, marriage counseling focusing on communication can help.