Talk The Talk

6 Simple Tips To Help You Talk About Feelings With Your Partner

Clear communication about feelings is necessary in a healthy relationship. It’s also really, really difficult. Here’s how to make it easier.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 

Talking about your feelings with your spouse can sometimes feel like attempting to do carpentry while blindfolded. You have no idea whether you’re using the right tools and if your wild hammer swings connect with something substantial, you don’t know if you’re repairing or hurting it. Emotions are abstract, complicated and subjective. Putting language to them is tricky business.

Despite the difficulty, communicating feelings is of critical importance to your relationship. “It’s the foundation healthy relationships are built on,” says relationship expert and Columbia University adjunct professor of counseling psychology Laurel Steinberg. “And you only get good at it by actually doing it.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to communicating feelings, most of us don’t know where to start. Luckily, the most important element of emotional communication is something you can do without specialized training or advanced knowledge: listening. Across the board, mental health professionals stress the importance of listening and making sure your spouse knows you hear them. “You just have to show up and listen, reflect back what you heard, and let them know that experiencing this emotion or that emotion is a normal experience,” says Sarah O'Brien, Clinical Director of Thrive & Shine Counseling in Virginia.

1. Learn Your ABCs

The ABC framework is an important concept in cognitive behavioral therapy and understanding it can be a key towards effectively communicating your feelings. It breaks down experiences into three components:

  • A) an activating event or challenge
  • B) beliefs a person consciously or unconsciously holds that are related to the event
  • C) consequences of the event, including emotional responses.

Because B connects A and C and because beliefs are often irrational or predicated on mistaken understandings, it’s the most important framework element to focus on.

Imagine the activating event is your spouse being curt with you and the consequence is you losing your cool. You believe your spouse was inconsiderate, so you snapped. But that belief could be wrong — maybe your spouse’s reaction had nothing to do with you. They could have been tired or stressed out and you just happened to be there.

The ABC framework helps you take responsibility for your personal emotional experience. It can also make it easier to talk about your feelings. Instead of saying “I hate when you do that” or “you make me mad,” Steinberg suggests using phrasing like “when this type of thing happens, I feel x or y, or when that happens I make myself feel a or b.” When you do, you can learn that your emotional response may not be grounded in reality — and your spouse gains a greater understanding of behavior that pushes your buttons.

“It prevents the other party from being blamed for all of the wrongdoing in a situation and allows the conversation to focus on improving the activating event for next time,” Steinberg says.

2. Remember To Validate

If something your partner is upset about doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, keep that opinion to yourself. While you may think you’re offering a helpful perspective, O'Brien says your partner won’t receive it that way. For them, it will feel like you’re saying what they’re feeling doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

When your partner — or anyone for that matter — shares their feelings, try to avoid any sentence that starts with the phrase “I don’t understand.” Not only will you appear dismissive but moreover it shows you’re overlooking a huge point: it doesn’t matter whether you understand what they’re feeling as long as you acknowledge its validity.

“You don't have to understand, have experienced it yourself, or agree to validate someone's emotional experience,” she says. Simply saying something like “That makes sense" or "I hear that” is a much better choice.

3. Schedule Regular Talking Sessions

If you want to have a calm and rational conversation about the emotional landscape of your relationship, you need to plan for it. It’s not something that pops up during casual conversation. Moreover, when both you and your spouse know you’re talking about feelings, it’s easier to keep the conversation civil.

Becca Smith, counselor and Chief Clinical Officer at Texas counseling program Basepoint Academy recommends scheduling time to check in with your spouse to take the temperature of the relationship. You can do so daily or weekly–it doesn’t matter how often the conversations occur as long as they happen regularly.

“Having these conversations can help to keep the lines of communication open and foster trust between partners,” Smith says. “Sweeping anything under the rug can ultimately lead to bigger issues down the line, so it's important to have a consistent space to bring up issues or concerns as they arise.”

4. Practice Active Listening

Remember: your spouse is probably as bad at expressing their emotions as you are. Especially when you’re new to it, talking about feelings doesn’t invite eloquence. There will probably be a lot of sentence fragments, pauses, and phrases like “I don’t know how to say this,” “do you know what I mean?” and “does that make sense?” Because of the difficulty inherent to talking about feelings, both of you need to be extra attentive. That’s why active listening is critical for discerning meaning during these conversations.

“That means really paying attention and actively engaging in the conversation instead of rushing through it and not taking everything into account,” says Smith. “Take turns talking, and don't be afraid to ask questions and really delve into the topic at hand. This will help both parties feel heard and understood, and can go a long way towards strengthening communication within the relationship.”

5. Don’t Guess Or Assume. Ask.

You know your spouse well. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assume you know what they’re feeling. It’s a lose/lose scenario. If your assumption is right, you’re a smug know-it-all. If you’re wrong, you’re a guy starting a fight. Smith says that instead of guessing at or assuming you know how your spouse feels, it’s better to ask them about what they’re feeling. “This will help you gain a better understanding of what's really going on and work together towards a solution that works for both people,” she says.

6. Write It Out

If talking about your feelings is too daunting, pick up a pen. O’Brien says that when her clients struggle with communicating feelings to their partner, it can be easier to express their feelings via text, handwritten note or email, feelings can be easier. It’s not the ideal form of emotional communication but it can be a lifesaver when talking seems impossible. “To share things that are uncomfortable or feel vulnerable to us, it can be best to have another medium and some space between you and your partner to fully express yourself without getting in the weeds,” she says. “And the partner can respond in writing, which offers them the same benefit.”

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