Are you wanting more emotional closeness but not sure how to foster more open communication? Does the stress of the pandemic have your partner more shut down than normal?
We all know that open and honest communication plays a huge role in the success of any relationship, particularly romantic ones. But, this Covid-19 nightmare has many folks shutting down and turning inward. Some people, under stress, retreat within themselves and are not pulled to share their feelings with friends, family, or even their partner.
If your sweetie is feeling closed-off to you during this pandemic (or any time for that matter), you might be discouraged or hurt. Maybe you have tried asking them about this or pressured them to open up — and it is only making them pull away more.
There are practical ways to approach the communication in your relationship that will encourage them to open up.
First, it’s important to understand the deeper reasons why someone might be shutting down during a stressful time.
Why Someone Closes Off
The main reason a person might have a hard time opening up is that they don’t feel emotionally safe to do so. This can sometimes be a reflection of how they feel about the relationship and it may also have to do with past experiences of intimacy.
If someone perceives that the relationship is not strong or safe enough to share their inner world, there two reasons for this:
- The communication in the relationships is not healthy. The unsafety has created a field of ‘not ok to be me’ and retreat feels like the only option.
- The relationship has not yet built trust. This could be simple because the relationship is new and there has not been much time spent together. (I experience this often with new clients. They want to trust because they are ‘supposed to be sharing their whole inner worlds,’ but I am a new person. Real solid trust does takes time.)
The tendency towards being closed also often stems from previous unhealthy relational experiences and/or trauma. This could be a Dad who was unavailable, a Mom who was overbearing, a first boyfriend who was manipulative, a babysitter that lied and breached the trust in the relationship. In any instance where there is a violation of the relationships bond, there is the potential to leave scars around how safe it will be to open up.
It’s common that people feel shame around what they have experienced and believe they need to ‘hide’ these parts of themselves.
Very generally speaking, men across many cultures are not encouraged to talk openly about their emotions. This leads to the common stereotype that men do not have as many feelings as women.
Humans are humans — we all have feelings and our gender does not determine our ability to be in connection with our emotions.
Another thing to keep in mind: people process experiences at varying speeds. Sometimes, they truly may not know how to answer your questions because they haven’t asked the questions themselves.
Also, people will have a more difficult time opening up if they haven’t processed what they’re resistant to open up about. It may be uncomfortable, unfamiliar or unsafe for them to ‘turn that stone over.’ If they are avoiding self-reflection, they will most likely not be able to open up about the topic with you.
How to encourage opening up:
1. Consistency & Calm is Key.
If your partner has any of the above, whether it’s past relational trauma or a lack of processing their own emotions, the most important gift you can give your relationships is to be consistent and calm in your interactions.
This will help to build trust between you two.
Folks who have challenges opening up tend to require longer than the average person to build trust, rapport, and emotional safety.
It is critical that you stay true to your word. For instance, call when you say you will. Being consistent will help with that foundation needed to trust to grow.
You also want to be mindful not to over react in situations. When building trust, the consistency of being calm in your communication will be a huge game changer. If your pulled back partner feels they are going to get reamed by your high energy, they will be more inclined to back away.
When you notice yourself getting elevated in your emotion, take a few big breaths and even walk away if needed. Slowing yourself down before engaging will make you a safer person to communicate with.
I have this trouble sometimes with clients who are on the more shy side. I can be a fast paced and high energy person. To meet them where they are, I have to remind myself to slow down, take deep breaths and make room for them.
Let your partner see that you can make room for them by keeping consistent in your mood, communication, expressions and requests.
2. Be an Active Listener.
Even if those that have trouble opening up still desire to feel seen, included and understood.
Active listening is a great way to reassure your partner that you’re there for them by offering your attention.
The most important component of active listening is empathy. To demonstrate active listening, you want to have a nonjudgmental verbal acknowledgment of the others feelings.
You can do this with phrases like, “It sounds like you’re feeling [insert appropriate feeling] because [reason they might be feeling that way],” which opens up the door for them to give their take. Also, when you can use a sentence like this, it shows you are really trying to understand their point of view.
3. Ask a Few Questions (but do not be attached to the result)
First, you must learn the balance between sensitive questions and prying. If you ask probing questions that feel loaded, you may make your partner retreat even more.
We all want to feel like we matter, but no one wants to feel like they’re in the hot seat. Too many questions can leave them feeling interrogated and judged and put them on the defensive.
Yet, you may need to ask some questions to get this conversation flowing. The best types of questions are open ended ones. Something like, ‘I heard you on the phone with you (family) earlier, how is your (mom, dad, sister, ect) doing?’
As the conversation goes on, if you are getting a good response from the person, you can keep asking questions, but staying mindful the whole time not to pry and do not be attached to the result.
Be patient and don’t forget to actively listen when you pose the question.
4. Demonstrate by Self-disclosure First — and then be quiet.
Without hijacking the conversation and making it about you, self-disclosure can also be effective in helping someone open up. You want to share in a way that prompts the other person to offer their experience.
For example, “I’ve been really struggling with social distancing and feeling super lonely and anxious about it. How have you been doing?”
By including your own vulnerability first, they’ll be less likely to feel ashamed, dismissed or silenced.
It is really important to be aware of over-sharing or taking up too much space in the conversation. If they start to speak, become an active listener. If they do not begin to speak, it is ok to let there be silence. Some folks take a while to start talking (evening up to 3 minutes or more.)
Side note: people process in different ways. Meaning, it may take them a bit of time to get back with you with a response. Stay calm and consistent as your partner reveals themselves to you.
5. Lean on Nonverbal Cues.
Nonverbal cues go a long way in effective communication. We’ve all had the feeling someone wasn’t saying what they meant, based on their body language. Being mindful of the cues we’re giving off will help build trust and a feeling of safety.
Things like eye contact, genuine and warm facial expressions, and your tone of voice are all things to keep in mind.
(This also ties in with being calm and consistent.)
6. Share that you value your relationship and ask what they need to feel safe.
If all else fails, you may have to ask your partner outright what they need to feel okay opening up to you.
This option isn’t always appropriate, but if you’ve tried everything and still feeling like they’re closed off, you might say something like, ‘I really care about you and want to continue deepening our relationship. I’ve noticed whenever we broach [insert topic], you change the subject. If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand and won’t pry, but I also want to be here if and when you do. Is there anything you need from me to feel safer sharing?’
This option needs to be used sparingly. If at every moment you use phrases like this, your closed off partner will continue their retreat.
Keeping in mind previous points like nonverbal cues, active listening and remaining calm.
7. Acknowledge your own desires.
It is equally important to recognize our own desire to deepen the relationship. You most likely have different boundaries, timelines, or even be subconsciously dealing with fears of abandonment.
If you’re struggling with a partner’s unwillingness to open up, reflect on your own needs for ‘information’ or intimacy, and consider that there might be a need to practice patience with the process.
Understanding for yourself where your desire for closeness is coming from will untangle some of the crunchiness that opens when you feel your partner withdrawing.
Maintaining the Openness.
Once you’ve successfully begun making headway in connecting, acknowledge what they’ve shared and thank them for trusting you with this information.
Don’t be alarmed if you have to pump the brakes a bit. It’s common for people to retreat after opening up because their own vulnerability and shame is too overwhelming or uncomfortable.
To keep the self-disclosure flowing, continue practicing these tips, along with broader ways to deepen your connection as a couple, like prioritizing date nights (yes, even during Covid-19) and learning how to effectively work through disagreements.
Changes may not happen overnight, but with a little patience and effort, you and your partner can figure out what works for you to really emotionally connect.