What if you want to prove your trustworthiness, but your partner is too scared to give you the chance?
The importance of communication has been a foundational concept in relationship therapy for so long that it almost sounds cliche and meaningless at this point. We know, we know, communication is key. We know, we know, we can’t read each other’s minds. Blah, blah, blah…Right?
I get it; I feel the same way. But, based on the runaway popularity of Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, it would seem that most of us are still struggling to some degree with the very kind of communication we need to deeply connect and thrive in our relationships.
Why is this? It’s likely because when we aren’t sure if we can trust someone to care for our deepest, most vulnerable feelings, we hold back and fail to communicate. But, by failing to communicate, we also undermine the very trust we need to feel safe. It’s a Catch-22.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to break this stalemate?
Fortunately, there is. There are actually two ways to break this stalemate. The first, of course, is what Brown talks about often: courage. We need to risk putting ourselves out there to provide people in our lives the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness. But this has been written about extensively, so I won’t belabor the point.
What this concept of courage doesn’t cover is what to do if you’re on the other side of the equation. What if you want to prove your trustworthiness, but your partner won’t give you the chance? What if your partner is too scared to open up and break the stalemate?
One answer to this conundrum is the very thing we’ve been preaching against in relationship therapy, well, forever.
If you could read your partner’s mind, you could gently ask if what you sense is correct. You could open the door for further communication by showing you have the ability to treat their deepest, most vulnerable feelings with care.
But reading minds isn’t really possible, right?
Well no, not if you’re talking about a kind of extra-sensory perception that would enable you to really look into someone’s mind and identify their specific thoughts (although brain science is getting eerily close). What we do have though is the power of observation and a book that can help us translate what we see.
Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen spent eighteen years studying facial expression and body movement and wrote a book about their research called Unmasking the Face. Their research can help you “improve your recognition of facial clues” and “increase your ability to detect facial deceit.” In other words, you can improve your ability to identify how someone is feeling, even when they’re trying to hide it.
For example, two of my children have very different “tells” when they’re lying, but because I know my children, I can recognize their lies almost every time. The first child is naturally structured and disciplined. He only lies when feeling cornered, but he always feels fearful when lying, because he’s been taught that it’s wrong. His face stays relatively neutral and doesn’t register extreme feelings, but if I’m looking closely, his eyes always give him away. They never fail to get slightly tight and open a little too wide.
My second child is more of a free spirit who tells stories to amuse himself, and others. For him, the truth is more flexible, open to interpretation; and he feels no fear or ethical dilemma about lying. His face also stays relatively neutral. But if I’m looking closely, his eyes, and sometimes his mouth, give him away as well. The inner corner of one eyebrow will lift slightly in amusement, sometimes accompanied by a subtle twitch in the corner of his mouth.
I’ve found these skills are especially useful for identifying when someone is hurt because it’s common for people to try to hide hurt. By recognizing when someone is hurt and trying to hide it, you can tenderly address their injured feelings before they become angry—which is often the result of suppressed hurt. It’s much easier to nurture a relationship when someone is hurt than when they are angry.
With this in mind, a brief primer might be helpful. Depending on the circumstances, hurt will usually manifest as a combination of fear, surprise and/or sadness. The evidence of these feelings can be replaced quickly by anger so it’s important to pay close attention.
When someone is afraid, their “eyebrows appear raised and drawn together; the eyes are open [wide] and the lower lid is tensed; and the lips are stretched back.”
When someone feels afraid, their “eyebrows are raised, the eyes are opened wide, and the jaw drops open, parting the lips.”
When someone feels sad, the “inner corners of the eyebrows are raised and may be drawn together. The inner corner of the upper eyelid is drawn up and the lower eyelid may appear raised. The corners of the lips are drawn down, or the lips appear to tremble.”
If you make a joke, for example, that “crosses the line,” your partner might be surprised and sad in which case you might see an open mouth with eyelids that are slightly drawn up. Alternately if your joke makes your partner doubt your feelings for them, you might see a combination of surprise and fear with an open mouth and tense eyes.
In either case, you don’t need to understand why; you just need to recognize the feeling so you you can gently say something like, “You look hurt, did I cross the line?” or “I can see I hurt you, I’m sorry.” When spoken with genuine care and concern, these responses will show your partner that you’re willing to walk with them in their vulnerability and help build the trust you need to communicate.
A healthy relationship requires mutual effort, which of course includes communication and courage. But often it’s necessary to learn new tools for navigating relationships with those who matter most. The practice of mind reading can help open the doors to exchanging deep and vulnerable feelings with our partner, the kind that combat shame and facilitate connection, making relationships thrive.
Photo: Getty Images
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