This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Inviting a Reluctant Partner into ‘the Work’”. To listen to this episode, click here.
There’s one question I have gotten more than any other question since the Loving Bravely book first came out: “How do I get my partner to be more self-reflective or emotionally available?” Let’s explore the big and nuanced question of how to deal with what I am going to call a Relational Self-Awareness discrepancy and how to invite a reluctant or skeptical or resistant partner into emotional work. Here are the four main things we’ll unpack:
- I will talk about what might be blocking a reluctant partner from opening up.
- I will talk directly to the willing partner, about some strategies for how they can invite a reluctant partner into relationship work.
- I will talk directly to the reluctant partner, who perhaps was handed this article by their willing partner.
- I will provide a summary of takeaways.
I want to offer you tools for how you might work through a Relational Self-Awareness discrepancy rather than having it be a roadblock.
As you read, pay attention to the thoughts, the feelings, the sensations in your body as these point you toward what you may need to attend to and heal inside of you. Consider how you might tailor these tools and recommendations for your unique situation.
Let’s start with a reminder: sameness is not a prerequisite for intimacy. In fact, sitting side by side, curiously exploring the nature of your differences, is immensely intimacy-promoting. I recently watched a couple try to explain and feel into how they each experience anxiety. They asked questions like: How do we experience anxiety similarly? How do we experience it differently? They used voice, gesture, and words to attempt to bring their partner into a more nuanced understanding of self and other. It was lovely to see.
One of the most confusing differences that some couples must bridge is a difference in Relational Self-Awareness. If you are new to my work, Relational Self-Awareness is an ongoing, curious and compassionate relationship we have with ourselves, that becomes the foundation for a happy and healthy intimate partnership. It is that willingness, again and again, to turn toward and take responsibility for our part of relationship dynamics. Your Stuff + My Stuff = Our Stuff. To learn more about Relational Self-Awareness, please check out the Intimate Relationships 101 e-course here.
What we are talking about here is a discrepancy between partners around that willingness to be introspective. This RSA difference typically looks like one partner being willing to curiously and compassionately reflect on their part of a relationship dynamic. They may be willing to ask themselves:
- What am I bringing to the table?
- How are my family of origin dynamics, cultural conditioning, beliefs, and expectations affecting how I experience this moment with you?
- How am I coming across right now? What is it like to be with me right now?
However, the other person isn’t willing or able to ask themselves these same questions or reflect on their part in a relationship dynamic in the same way.
What Might Be Getting In The Way
Intimate relationships are at-will arrangements, so I am NOT telling you whether to stay or go if you’re facing an RSA discrepancy. But I am saying that there are a lot of reasons that people may be less self-aware than you.
I love to ask constraint questions like:
- Why aren’t you self-reflective?
- What keeps you from… being willing to do therapy, listening to this podcast, reading this book?
There are a plethora of constraints that may be getting in the way of someone having the capacity to look inward. Potential constraints include things like gender role socialization and cultural identities. Family of origin dynamics can also get in the way. If you had a particularly intrusive family that used tenderness against you, it may feel painful to self-reflect. Sometimes our families don’t discuss emotions, or conflate vulnerability with weakness. Our family stuff comes with us and can prevent us from wanting to or knowing how to look inward.
Prior experiences of being forced into therapy may also create hesitancy to do self-reflective work. Perhaps your partner has a prior partner who may not have asked for the kind of depth you’re craving. Your partner may have legit thought the “kiddie pool” was as deep as it went, and now you’re inviting them to swim in the deep end. That is a scary experience! And speaking of scary, fear can also get in the way of accessing our deep inner selves. You or your partner may think things like “If I let myself feel, I won’t be able to stop!” Unaddressed trauma can stir up fear as well. It is ironic, right, that the thing that feels threatening (therapy, information, support) is the very thing they need?
It is, however, important to understand that there is a distinction between having a lack of experience with self-reflection and holding contempt or resentment for self-reflection. The quotes below may help you discern the difference between these two states of being:
|“I am not sure what you’re asking of me, but I want to understand.”|
“I don’t have a ton of language for my experience, but I want to try.”
“I value how you can talk about your feelings like this, and I want to get better at doing that too.”
“Let’s keep talking like this.”
“I appreciate your patience.”
|“I don’t believe in therapy” (to which you reply, therapists aren’t Santa!)|
“You’re too emotional.”
“What happened in my childhood is irrelevant.”
“Family history is an excuse.”
Can you feel the difference? If your partner is inexperienced but willing, your patience is loving, not foolish!
For The Willing Partner
Ok willing partner, this part is for you! Your past history can certainly get stirred up when you are trying to invite someone to do hard work with you. It can be very painful to feel as if you are alone in your relationship. It is important to remember, though, that you won’t be the same on this because you aren’t the same on anything! And in fact, some of your differences probably brought you together in the first place. Invite some acceptance here for yourself and your partner. How else are you sourcing your needs for emotional intimacy?
There is also some self-reflection that you can do precedes the invitation you are offering:
- “How do I get my partner to do X?”
- When my friend, Kim, finds herself focusing on someone other than herself, she practices this mantra, “How full of me to be so full of you!”
- Why might you be focusing on them instead of you?
- What is the story you are telling yourself about your partner NOT doing X?
A key piece of information: If you want to change a system, change yourself. It is important to remember that as you start to wonder how to ask your partner to do some self-reflection. Here’s are six different ways to shift how you pose the invitation to your partner:
|Instead of this…||Try this…|
|Threats“If you don’t listen to this, I’ll be angry / break up with you / say no to what you want me to do.”||Requests“It would mean a lot to me if you would take this class with me. I think this would be good for us.”|
|Guilt trips“After all I do for you, this is the least you can do for me.”||Agreements“If you agree to this, I’d be more than happy to try something you’re interested in.”|
|Comparisons“My friends’ partners do stuff like this with them.”||Requests“I really want us to do this together.”|
|Character assassination“You should want to do this for us. A good partner would be willing.”||Appealing to shared values“I know that we both want what’s best for our relationship.”|
|Assumptions“You must not love me very much. / You must not be invested in our relationship.”||Admiration“Something I love about you is that you are willing to step into new experiences, even when you are unsure, esp. on behalf of the people you love.”|
|Judgement“You are so stubborn / arrogant / rigid.”||Curiosity“Can you help me understand what’s getting in the way? How can I support you?”|
If you heard yourself in any of those (threats, guilt trips, comparisons, character assassinations, assumptions, or judgements), put your hand on your heart and breathe in some self-compassion. No need to make yourself bad or wrong. Shame is a crappy motivator for change. Just ease. Just playing with possibilities. Get curious around how you can incorporate these 6 shifts into your invitation.
For The Reluctant Partner
If your partner just sent you this article, let’s talk!
First of all, look at you! You are reading this! A step is a step. People who are resistant to working on themselves tend to view reaching for things like therapy, books, or podcasts as a sign of weakness. If that’s you, you’re not making that idea up out of thin air. You internalized that message, likely many times, over many years. What might it be like to shift from feeling diminished by doing something like this to feeling proud?
Research by Dr. Susan Johnson shows that intimate relationships are happiest and healthiest when partners feel they are:
- Accessibility: Can I reach you?
- Responsiveness: When I’m hurting, are you there? When I’m celebrating, are you there?
- Engagement: You’re by my side, I value you.
Relationships take work! Few of us grow up with the tools we need. Earlier, I named some of the specific constraints that can make it hard for someone to begin to practice Relational Self-Awareness. I’d like to ask you to reflect on which of those constraints landed for you. By knowing what gets in the way FOR YOU, you can start to address and ease that.
You get to be a skeptic: There is a difference between being excited and being willing. Perhaps you would not have discovered this on your own, but your love of your partner motivates you to give it a try. Some of us LOVE self-help books and other resources of that nature. Others of us do it because we know it is good for us. What are other things you do willingly but not excitedly?
You get to be the follower in this area, not the lead. Your willingness will keep your partner energized to keep making bids.
- Ask your partner: If I have issues about the process, what will help you take these issues less personally? What will help you hear them as critiques vs. cut offs?
Ok, so I promised takeaways! Here they are:
- RSA discrepancies are common and complicated.
- Best case scenario, discrepancies are something to be navigated with a blend of acceptance and requests for change.
- Worst case scenario, they can be a deal breaker.
- There is a difference between inexperience/skepticism and contempt.
For the willing partner:
Remember, do some self-reflection on the meanings you attach to this discrepancy. What do you make it mean about you? About your partner? Try to access and utilize the six shifted invitations to transform the way you ask something of your partner.
For the reluctant partner:
Relationships take work. It is understandable if you internalized the idea that self-reflection is a sign of weakness, but you get to feel proud, not diminished, for making choices that reflect your investment in your relationship. You get to be willing. The bar doesn’t need to be excitement. You can own your skepticism (and move through it) so that it doesn’t feel to your partner like a statement of your degree of investment.
If you recall, I named what I refer to as the “golden equation” earlier. That equation is Your Stuff + My Stuff = Our Stuff. If you are in a relationship, you are engaging in relational dynamics, the dance between the two people. It is important for everyone to be mindful of their part in those dynamics, and recognize ways they can both shift their part in those dynamics and be curious and compassionate about both new and old dance moves in those dynamics!