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How Do I Help My Partner be More Open?
By Chapel Taylor-Olsen, BA; and Professional Practice Extension Assistant Professor, Dr. Ashley Yaugher
When our partner says, “I don’t want to talk about that,” or claims “nothing is wrong” when we can tell that they are upset, it’s easy to assume that they’re angry at us or worry that pushing further will cause a fight. However, there are many other emotions and past experiences that could be at play. Our partner may be feeling unsure of their emotions, or our reaction. They may not have processed what they’re feeling and may honestly not know how to answer our questions (Navarra, 2021; Regan, 2020; Briere & Lanktree, 2011). We must accept that intimacy cannot be forced, takes time and patience, and creating the environment where they feel safe is important for this process. Here are five tips for encouraging our partner to be more open:
1. Wait for the Right Time: We must process own feelings first, become calm, then let our partner know that we’d like to talk. Heading into a conversation too emotional can make communication difficult. Also, we should make sure our partner is in the right mindset for the conversation. For instance, don’t approach a sensitive subject when they’re upset about work (Lamothe, 2019).
2. Active Listening: Use nonverbal communication to tell our partner that we’re ready to listen – make eye contact, have a neutral facial expression, face them, avoid crossing our arms and legs (Regan, 2020). Do not interrupt them. Our main goal should be to listen and understand how our partner feels, not to fix anything. Periodically rephrase what the other person has said to see if we understood it correctly (e.g., “It sounds like you felt…”) and remember not to be afraid of silence (Bloom & Bloom, 2014; Hoppe, 2007).
3. Personal Sharing: Use I statements (e.g., “I feel upset when…”), to state our feelings without placing blame or judgment. Sharing how we’re feeling and what we have experienced can help the other person feel safe opening up. However, be careful not to dominate the conversation. Shoot for listening 80% of the time and talking 20% (Regan, 2020; Hoppe, 2007). Always be honest about what we’re feeling and if we’re not ready to share something, be honest about that too (Carter, 2021).
4. Be Worthy of Trust: Everyday moments can be opportunities to show the person we love that they can trust us. When we make a commitment, follow through with it. Communicate with them about everyday things -- when we’ll be home late, what we’d like to have for dinner, our desire to go out on the weekend, etc. Build the trust and dialogue slowly (Carter, 2021).
5. Have Patience: Things are likely to feel the most frustrating when we’ve begun to see improvement and feel hope our partner will be more open. Have patience. Expect the improvements to be small and celebrate even the most incremental results (Bloom & Bloom, 2014; Briere & Lanktree, 2011). It may also be important to observe our own reason for wanting our partner to open up more. Are there fears or insecurities we have that might be driving this desire (Regan, 2020)? We may consider seeking professional support for our own unresolved histories.
Supportive and ongoing communication is essential to healthy relationships but requires active participation from all sides. We can start by following these tips to build an environment in which our closed-off partners feel safe opening up.
- Bloom, L. & Bloom, C. (2014, September 8). 12 steps to getting someone to open up: Tread lightly, but don’t give up hope. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stronger-the-broken-places/201409/12-steps-getting-someone-open
- Briere, J. N. & Lanktree, C. B (2011). Treating complex trauma in adolescents and young adults. SAGE Publications.
- Carter, B. (2021, August 10). 4 tips to build everyday trust in relationships. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/4-tips-to-build-everyday-trust-in-relationships/
- Hoppe, M. H., (2007). Active listening: Improve your ability to listen and lead. Center for Creative Leadership.
- Lamothe, C. (2019, October 29). Talk it out: Communication 101 for couples. Healthline.https://www.healthline.com/health/lack-of-communication#communication-tips
- Navarra, R. (2021, October 7). The dark side of anger: What every couple should know. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-dark-side-of-anger-what-every-couple-should-know/
- Regan, S. (2020, April 27). 7 ways to get a closed-off person to open up to you. Mind Body Green https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-to-get-someone-to-open-up