By: Abigale Hassel
A friend of mine recently asked me how she can help someone in whom she is interested learn to trust again. You see, he went through a very contentious divorce. She did not specify, but apparently, his ex-wife betrayed him in some way. She shared that she has watched him struggle with anger, resentment and deep hurt and all she has known to do is pray for him. She asked me how I counsel people to trust and open themselves up emotionally and how I counsel their partners who are in a relationship with them. Good questions.
For the sake of this discussion, I am going to direct my comments to those of you who are the partners of people who are closed off emotionally, who are unemotional, and/or who are untrusting. If your partner is a good person, but just does not know how to express his or her feelings, then please continue reading. Let me share that I completely understand what this is like, because my husband used to have the same difficulty with opening up and sharing his emotions with me. He was able to express his love and he was sure able to express his anger, but it was the more vulnerable emotions in between that had him stumped. He was very walled off from the emotions that he believed made him appear “weak”. After several years of maturing and hard relationship work between the two of us, he has learned what I hope to teach you all now. In a nutshell, there is nothing braver than opening yourself up, expressing your deep felt emotions and risking getting hurt in the process. This is not weakness; it is vulnerability. To be vulnerable is not weak; it is strong.
Your partner is either afraid of his or her more vulnerable emotions or he or she is unable to identify them because they have been suppressed for so long. Suppressed emotions always find their way out in some fashion and, sometimes, that way can be very detrimental to a relationship. These people use what I refer to as the anger shield. I like to use the analogy that anger acts like a suit of armor. We wear this armor to protect ourselves from the hurts of shame, guilt, sadness, rejection, and so on. The problem is that when we constantly walk around with anger armor on, we may be keeping some bad stuff out, but we are also keeping good stuff out, like love, affection, and the closeness that comes with a healthy relationship. Furthermore, the armor hides our inner most feelings from the outside world, thereby keeping us from getting the support we may really need. After all, you cannot hug a suit of metal! We have to help our partner take off that suit of armor and feel more comfortable to walk around in his or her underwear, exposed and vulnerable.
How then can we, as the partner of the armor clad person, help him or her be able to open up to us? How can we make him or her feel comfortable to walk around in his or her underwear? We do this by making it safe to be exposed. First, we lead by example. Really look at your level of personal expression of emotion. Are you able to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner? Are you yourself wearing an anger shield? If you are, then how can you expect your partner to take off his or hers? We must take the risk of being vulnerable ourselves so that we can show our partner he or she will be safe to do the same. If you show your spouse that you trust him or her with your inner most feelings, then your partner will eventually be able to do the same.
We must also refrain from attacking our partner when he or she finally starts removing the armor. I will share a situation with which a couple I used to counsel dealt. The husband in this case was the one who was emotionally closed off and this frustrated his wife. It took a while for him to decide that he would take the risk and attempt to express himself more. Unfortunately, his attempts were met with criticism and cynicism by his wife. She said things like, “Yes this is nice and all, but I doubt it will last.” Comments like that completely set him back and, eventually, he felt that it was not worth the effort to continue trying. People, if you see your spouse starts opening up to you, even if it is not exactly to the extent you had in mind, do not shut down the effort with criticism or skepticism. Provide positive feedback and continue to model the behavior you would like to see. Be patient but consistent and that is how change happens.
Finally, start to understand your partner’s love language. I highly recommend the book The 5 Love Languages, by Dr. Gary Chapman. According to Chapman, there are 5 primary types of love languages, which are as follows: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch and gifts. We each have one predominant love language that we need our partner to “speak” in order for us to feel loved. We must know our own love language and we must also know our spouse’s love language, for 2 reasons. First and foremost, we need to speak it to him or her so that he or she feels loved, but we must also be able to recognize when our partner is expressing his or her love and affection. Sometimes, no words are even needed to feel your partner’s emotions. Take my husband, for example. His primary love language is physical touch. He has no problem telling me “I love you” in words, but when he holds my hand, initiates cuddling, offers to massage my neck, hugs me tightly, and so on, that is when I feel his love the most. The point is this. Look for your partner’s emotions in other ways besides his or her words. You will be amazed at what you will find.
If you are frustrated by your partner’s armor, I want you to keep this in mind. I can almost guarantee there are emotions under the metal, probably a lot of them. To be human is to have emotions. Remember, still waters run deep. All you can do is take responsibility for your behavior. Model the behavior you would like in return, regardless of the reaction you receive. I know it is hard to open yourself up only to feel rejected or unnoticed, but someone has to take off the armor first, or else nothing will change. You may have to be the brave one and walk around in your underwear first. Little by little, you will start to see your partner’s armor coming off. Look for that in ways other than just words. Eventually, you will both be brave enough to be naked with one another and you know the fun you can have when you are naked! Be brave, be vulnerable and God bless!
Abigale S. Hassel is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, and individual and couples counselor. MSW, LCSW, OSW-C.
**The advice provided represents the opinions of the author. It is not to be considered therapy or professional advice of any kind. If you require such advice, you should consult an appropriate professional. Refer to the Marriage Rocks Website Terms and Conditions (link in page footer) for other applicable terms and conditions.**