-- Question for John --
My situation is this: I have been living with my boyfriend for over a year and still have problems communicating with him. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that his mother left his family for another man when he was in his teens. My boyfriend fears trusting anyone. He’s told me flat out that he doesn’t trust anyone “because everyone ends up hurting you anyway” and he never, ever opens up about how he feels.
Additionally, often I feel like my feelings are not validated when I share them with him. He easily dismisses me when I’m upset as being “silly” or “overly emotional”. I suggested counseling for him and even offered to go with him, but to no avail. He definitely doesn’t want to share his feelings with anyone else. Please give me any advise you can offer. Is a relationship with someone this emotionally scarred hopeless, or should I keep trying?
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-- Answer from John --
Your analysis of the situation is good. And your question is pertinent. I personally would not give up on the relationship until I was certain I had exhausted all avenues of potential improvement and all strategies for motivating my partner. Then there’s the issue — how do you motivate him? In no particular order, here are some elements I would suggest:
Make sure that however you present your motivational messages, there is an underlying message that both of you will be involved in learning to make some changes. Make sure that you do not accidentally give him the impression that this is really just about him and his problem that needs to be fixed — and that you have nothing to update, upgrade or improve on your side of the equation. Fact is, that would be naive of you. All partners can learn to do things better. Secondly, it will only end up pushing him away, because nobody — absolutely nobody — is willing to be the singular problem person in the relationship. It must be a matter of complete shared partnership. He has his end of the work. You have yours. Nobody is “right” or superior in the “I’ve got my act together” department.
Make sure that you emphasize that there ARE tools, techniques and strategies out there that CAN make a positive difference. That it is really a matter of learning new skills — and NOT a matter of someone being “defective” or deficient. There are always significant differences of one sort or another in relationships — and differences around emotional expression styles is totally common to the point of being predictable. The point is that we all need to learn new skills in order to be able to bridge the gaps that will occur in love between different styles. It’s partly a matter of communication skills. It’s partly a matter of emotional intelligence skills. These are all positive things to add to one’s personal toolkit of how to handle life and the inevitable challenges that come up. It’s about being proactive and succeeding. It’s important to realize that because most of us had impoverished family upbringings, most of us have not been exposed to great skills in these areas. We absolutely all have something to learn. Skills can be learned. It’s no different than learning skills in sports, technology, or what have you. It can be done. He can do it. You can do it. It’s just a matter of applying oneself.
Those are two important frameworks for making the “medicine go down easier” — but then there is the question of how to motivate the mouth to open, as it were:
You gotta gauge this for yourself. I might recommend being direct, positive, forceful, clear. But add compassionate, respectful, and resourceful, too. This means that if you have some anger or frustration or neediness or insecurity or whatever other emotions around this issue, that you get yourself together and centered BEFORE you deliver your clear message. In other words, if there is anger, let it turn from blame into a forceful, clear tone of voice that expresses inner confidence. If there is insecurity, tend to that yourself and get yourself calm and collected so that your voice will be direct and positive. Be resourceful yourself. And this will allow you to deliver a message that will also be respectful to him (which is important as to getting it heard rather than rejected).
A message like this might be in order, delivered along with the elements above:
“I deeply value our relationship and our love. I want it to continue to grow in a positive direction. I want to share great passion and loving with you. You are my beloved. And in the spirit of wanting this love of ours to be all it can be, I need to talk to you about where I see we both need to face up to something that is currently beginning to endanger our love from growing. Are you willing to hear me out on this?”
If yes, go ahead. If no, ask him when he is available to hear you. If he says never, then you have been check-mated and you might as well go straight to an ultimatum. But I doubt it would come to that. Anyway, when he is ready to hear you, you might continue as below:
“Thanks for hearing me out on this. I really appreciate you for your openness and courage. At this point in our relationship, I feel we are on the doorstep of a big challenge and a big opportunity. We have all heard that relationships take work at times, in order to prosper and keep growing. This is one of those times. There are aspects of how we communicate that are not working for me. I feel I am up against an edge of some kind, and I do not know how to move through it on my own. I need your partnership on this. I invite you to join me in learning some new skills in communicating and dealing with feelings that can help us move through this challenge and prosper in our love. I’m sure that if you are honest, you know inside that there is this rough edge and things are not working as well as they could. I do not intend or want this to become one of those deep-seated obstacles in our love that starts building up a wall between us.
This isn’t just about you or me, or who is “right.” If anything, we absolutely need to get beyond that, and get back on the same team, like we were when we first met. I need to learn some new skills. You need to learn some new skills. We both need to do some new learning. I have fears about doing this — insecurities about whether I can, discomfort about opening myself up, all that and more. But I have even greater fears about a wall that is starting to build up between us. I don’t want to just become part of the sad statistics on how few relationships really make it, really stay alive and full of passion, really grow and are full of lasting love. The research shows the main thing that keeps couples from succeeding is that they haven’t learned the right skills to succeed. I did not learn them in my upbringing. And if you are honest, you know you were not exposed to the best of skills either. The point is, we have room to grow, things to learn, and we are young and this is the best time of life to do it. I really really want you to partner with me on this. It is absolutely important to me.
I need to know you are a full partner in this love of ours. I’d like you to think this over for a few days and let me know whether you are ready to start learning something new here or not. I am not going to bring this up again. I am asking you to get back to me on it. If you do not get back to me, that will be a clear and very sad message in itself. But I do have confidence in you and do not believe you will leave me hanging out to dry on this. This is our relationship. We are in it together. This is a critical juncture in our relationship. This is one of those critical choices that will spell out the direction our love will take. I cannot tell you enough how much I love you and want that we get through this challenge and be able to look back on it from the vista of having used it as an opportunity to grow and improve our skills together.”
So, these are my best ideas on this. You have to speak your truth in your own way. I am showing you an example here that I feel would be compelling. It mixes the “carrot” with the “stick” to motivate him. The carrot — the positive attraction — is growing love, passion, shared pleasure, happiness, and, not least, the continuation of the relationship. The stick — the negative threat — is that there is an obstacle to be faced and dealt with, or else the love is going to deteriorate and probably die. Get yourself together and be as confident and friendly as possible when you deliver your message. Play the carrot and the stick in whatever proportions enable you to get a response from him. Do not insist on a quick response — make sure you give him a few days to mull it over — and do not bring it up again — let him bring it up.
Let me know how it goes…..