The world "vulnerable" can evoke a strong response. For some it can bring up that old dream of showing up to school in your underwear. For others it can bring on some serious anxiety. Studies show that individuals can reduce stress by expressing their feelings with others, especially those they trust. Additionally, sharing our feelings with loved ones can increase feelings of joy, making them last longer. With all the positive outcomes that come with actively sharing our feelings, why do most of us still hold back?
In 2019, Dr. Reis argued that many factors inhibit our ability to actively share our feelings. Research demonstrates that we are more likely to share our emotions with partners who present responsiveness. Meaning that if we anticipate that our partner will comprehend what we are going through and soothe us during that moment, it is more likely we feel safe and open to express our feelings. Many studies demonstrate how expressing our feelings can help regulate our emotions and increase our emotional bond with our partners.
Despite the benefits of sharing our feelings, being vulnerable can be difficult. If we feel scared or unsure of our partner's response, it is less likely we will open up emotionally. If we perceive that our partner will reject our feelings, we will most likely try to protect ourselves and our emotions.
Let's consider a hypothetical scenario between a beloved TV Couple, Marge and Homer, to illustrate the findings of Dr. Reis's study. The couple has been struggling financially, and Homer begins to avoid conversations regarding that topic, knowing how heated the situation can get from previous experiences. By evading such conversations, Homer might have the underlying intention of reducing the possible stress and protecting both partners from it. Except the opposite happens. Each time Marge brings the topic up, she feels rejected and isolated by not receiving the necessary attention from her husband. And both partners feel hurt and disconnected as if they were experiencing the issue alone.
That cycle of interaction can escalate further. Those feelings of rejection experienced by Marge can lead her to increase her attempts to discuss the matter, and as a consequence, Homer might try even harder to disengage. Neither partner can see how the enemy is not the other person
but the cycle itself, creating an environment where no one feels safe to be vulnerable and express their emotions and needs.
Most couples I see in therapy have been trying to find ways to protect their relationship, and more often than not, the strategies used to create connection are having the opposite effect.
Couples therapy can help couples such as Marge and Homer to become more emotionally responsive toward each other. While it is understandable that sharing emotions during a session can be significantly different than doing the same at home, therapy gives partners a chance to create new interaction cycles with the guidance of a therapist.
Most distressed couples that come to therapy usually present difficulty being responsive to each other. My focus in a session is to structure a safe environment for both partners to take a step back, identify their interaction cycle, and feel comfortable expressing their most vulnerable feelings to each other, leading to a new and positive interaction. By increasing the emotional responsiveness of the couple, neither of them unwillingly pushes the other one away in their attempts to be closer.
We all want to feel connected to our significant other. So, can you tell your partner how you feel?