Do you hide personal issues you’re facing from your partner? You might want to protect your loved one from worrying too much. But there’s a risk to your partnership in keeping too much of your inner world to yourself.
Sometimes one partner is afraid to go to the other a problem. There’s great fear of speaking up and having something bad happen. That in itself can create problems in a relationship.
Here’s an example. John lived with his wife Jane in the US. But John’s mother in England started having trouble taking care of herself.
John’s worries about his mother grew. He became preoccupied with her troubles, which strained an already troubled relationship with Jane.
During one of our couple’s sessions together, John brought up his ongoing concern for his mother. Then Jane burst out: “You’ve never even asked me if I would be willing to move so we could help your mom.”
Jane felt passed over and invisible. She was heartbroken that John could not see her longing to be part of solving the problem together. She wanted him to turn toward her instead of away. But John believed he needed to shoulder the burden of caring for his mom by himself.
John didn’t think being too independent was a problem. Why didn’t John take the chance to turn to Jane and face the issue together?
Why Being Too Self-Reliant Can Make Problems Worse
John and Jane stumbled into a common pitfall that leads many couples to disconnect.
Our culture praises independence. It’s a wonderful thing for a country. But too much self-reliance can damage or destroy a relationship.
We tend to believe that the more self-sufficient you are the better. The less you depend on others, the more people will respect you as capable and strong. We look for ways to avoid being vulnerable to avoid the risk that someone might let you down.
There’s a problem with too much self-reliance in a partnership. It can prevent two people from seeing their need for emotional connection. Self-reliance may make you shine on the job. But building a great relationship through independence is a fairy tale.
We all need a special relationship where:
- We know belong
- We matter
- It’s safe to share feelings and needs
We are born to seek this kind of safe bond. It’s called secure attachment.
As adults, we still need secure attachment. We need a safe relationship to help us survive — even thrive — with daily stress.
Putting Your Relationship First Means Learning to Be Vulnerable
Before he learned to open up to Jane, John fell victim to a common myth about how relationships work. He put self-protection before connection.
As a therapist, I often see couples try to struggle with emotions alone. They either try to handle troubles themselves, or they miss their partner’s cues – bids asking for help.
They put their need to feel invulnerable above the need to be emotionally present with their partner. They don’t see the problem with putting emotional connection second to self-protection. To find love, partners who tend to be too independent need to learn to be vulnerable.
Relationship researcher Dr. Sue Johnson also sees a problem when partners try to problem solve alone. They are:
…caught between the risk of opening up and the risk of shutting a loved one out, close down and choose lonely isolation. They think they are deciding for protection but in fact, they are stepping into a prison of their own making.
Johnson used insights like these to create Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help couples take down emotional walls.
3 Steps To Start Making Your Relationship A Priority
1. Stop what isn’t working. Couples who keep missing each other’s emotional needs often get caught in a downward spiral. They see their sense of safety together is in danger, so they panic. That panic often surfaces as anger, blame, aggression, or fear and withdrawal. Nobody feels misunderstood, and a cycle of blame begins.
Sue Johnson calls these “Demon Dialogs.” The first step is to recognize when anger escalates, and stop the argument.
2. Shift your focus. Look inside. Instead of the situation, the event, or the misunderstanding between you, try to see what it means to you. What do you need? What part of your self is hurting? Under the arguments are usually some very strong fears that you don’t matter, or that your needs are invisible.
“Simply accepting your attachment needs instead of feeling ashamed of them is a big and necessary first step,” Sue Johnson writes, “and it applies to single people as well as to those in relationships.”
3. Start sharing your side of the story. Help your partner see the emotions going on, and what you’re thinking when you feel disconnected. Start small. Share the story you told yourself when you felt hurt. Focus on your experience, without any blame.
Emotional Visibility Is Your Goal
Yes, there is a risk that your partner will not see the change the first, second, or even third time you try it. That can hurt a lot, too.
Yet learning to see and care about your thoughts and feelings together is deeply healing. Co-creating emotional presence can turn a troubled relationship into a great source of comfort and strength. And yes, it takes two to open up and make a relationship work.
By gently expressing what hurts, you create an opening that invites kindness and listening — instead of putting another brick in the wall. It’s the best way we know to help yourselves reconnect.
These steps are based on Johnson’s 7 conversations to heal and restore emotional connection. They are the part of the process of EFT for couples, which we offer in couples counseling and workshops.
Is this hard to do? Yes it is. Shifting your approach with your partner can be very difficult. It does take a huge leap of faith to open up and tell your partner when you feel hurt, and that want to be seen, to matter.
But there’s nothing like the love, comfort and security you feel when distance turns to understanding and support.
A defensive reaction may be the default response between you, if you have been feeling disconnected for a long time.
That’s where working with a therapist — especially one trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy can help.
You both may need support to safely talk about your distress, why you feel alone, and to ask for the comfort you need.
There are two ways our practice can help you reconnect with your partner.
- We offer a workshop for couples, called Creating Connection. It’s for couples who want to relate better, but who miscommunicate sometimes. You can sign up to learn about upcoming workshops. See a free information sheet here.
- Ask about counseling for yourself or both of you. Sessions are a safe zone for both you and your partner to explore emotions in new, constructive ways. We answer the phone: (703) 768-6240
- We send news and great self-care tips through our newsletter. We send it only to subscribers: You can get it here.