Dear Dr. Julie, I feel like every time I try to express my feelings to my partner, he becomes defensive or shuts down, which makes me feel unheard and invalidated. I love him and want to build a strong and healthy relationship, but I'm unsure how to approach this situation. Do you have any advice on how to communicate my emotional needs without creating conflict or pushing him away?
—Lost and Confused
Lost and Confused: That's frustrating for sure! One thing to keep in mind is that when we say something to another person, it gets filtered through their experiences and beliefs. What they hear is often not what we said or meant.
Many men have told me that when their wives or girlfriends are anxious or upset, they feel like they have done something wrong. Although I doubt you were trying to tell your partner that he had done something wrong (or is a bad relationship partner), my first question would be to wonder if that is what he heard. Can you ask him? Be sure to pick a time when you are feeling connected and things are going well.
If you don't feel comfortable asking him this question, or you ask and you end up in a fight, then you may be struggling with a bigger problem than just miscommunication. Dysfunctional relationship patterns often stem from emotional immaturity, childhood trauma, or lack of good relationship modeling growing up. If any of these is present (for either one of you), you'll need to address the dysfunctional pattern and underlying emotional issues or this defensiveness and your feelings of disconnection will continue throughout your relationship.
Ideally, the two of you should be able to have (short, emotion-free) discussions about the nature of your relationship without ending up in a fight. You should be able to say what works and doesn't work for you, have him listen to you, and work at adjusting his behavior to address your feedback. And, you should do the same for him.
Remember, it takes 5 positive interactions to make up for one negative interaction. Work to keep your interactions generally positive so that when you need to give difficult feedback, it isn't occurring in a sea of negativity.
This is the first post in a series where I answer reader-submitted questions.
Have a questions of your own? Submit it here. If I answer your question, I will feature it in my weekly newsletter and post it here in my blog.
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