Emotional Safety & Intimacy
I once had a couple where the wife complained that her husband never shared the things that mattered to him. She described herself as outgoing and bragged about having “great communication skills.” She described her husband as “emotionless” and said that he always shuts down as soon as they begin to have any disagreement. She was baffled by this as she frequently overheard him engaging in spirited conversations or debates with other people. She could not understand why he never wanted to have those types of conversations with her. By the way, she told me this while he sat next to her quietly staring at the floor. When I asked him if he agreed with her, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess so.” I sensed that he had more to say, so I encouraged him gently to tell me more. Then I waited, but before he could take a breath, his wife blurted, “See, he does the same thing to me.” Instead of moving on, I asked him again and told him to take his time and think about what he wanted to say. I told him I could wait, and he could talk when he was ready. The three of us sat silently for a couple of minutes. Then he started to explain his point of view. “My wife likes to argue…” before he could finish the sentence, she interrupted. “I like to talk. You just don’t like to talk.” I asked the wife to let him talk. She responded, “Well, what he has to say is stupid anyway. He only has negative things to say about me.” So, he stopped talking.
In another couple, a man complained of his partner’s messiness. In detail, he described her messy bedroom, the piles of unfolded clothes, her closet that was upside down, and her desk scattered with papers. She looked mortified and humiliated. As she squirmed in embarrassment, probably hoping for the floor to open up and swallow her whole, I tried to interrupt. Instead, he talked louder and concluded with, “I know she doesn’t want me to tell you this, but she should be ashamed of herself.” She was on the verge of tears.
Both complainers in these couples did not understand why their partners chose to distance themselves. However, this is not a mystery. Blaming and shaming never works to build connection. Not sometimes. Not now and then. Never. In the first scenario, my “great communicator” uses a lot of words, but her communication attempts are critical and blaming. Also, she claims to seek communication, but then continuously shuts down her husband when he attempts to talk. What she doesn’t realize is that she only wants to hear from him when he is offering her positive praise even if he is not feeling it. Otherwise, what he has to say is “stupid.” In the second scenario, this partner thought shaming her messiness would show her that he had her best interests at heart. (Yes, he actually said that.) It had the opposite effect. She was hurt and ashamed by his eagerness to blab about her struggles.
In both of these scenarios, the shamed/blamed partner felt unsafe emotionally. One person judged for any words he says, the other judged for her messiness. I have yet to see anyone, male or female, open up and want to connect with a person who leaves them feeling emotionally raw. Instead, they build a taller and more reinforced wall. They hide, they shut down, and they escape. Building emotional safety with your partner is a requirement for authentic connection. It requires being able to tolerate words and things you don’t like. It involves self-examination of your contribution to the disconnection and then behaving in ways that allow your partner to be seen, heard, and understood without judgment.
Listening without judgment is not the same as agreeing with what is said. It is understanding what is said and trying to understand how and why someone arrived at that thought. The wife above needed to learn that her constant interruptions and critical commentary were a turn off to her husband’s willingness to engage her in conversation. No one wants to talk to someone who always thinks they are right or who continually interrupts.
Also, the man above learned that using shame is not an effective way to show someone you care. He needed to learn that the level of cleanliness or messiness can vary widely from person to person, and his way of being is not the only way of living. He certainly was never going to encourage her to change to be more like him, if that was his goal. When people feel attacked, they instinctively dig in.
So the next time you find yourself blaming or shaming, just stop. Think about what it might be like to be on the receiving end of your judgment and realize that it will not help you accomplish your goal. Instead, re-think your approach and ask yourself if you are unintentionally pushing your loved one further away and, if so, do something different that has a better chance of bringing them closer.