Speaking up in relationships feels extremely challenging for many people and is more common than you might think.
And, there’s usually — when we drill down to the emotional level — one basic element: Fear. In this post, we’re explaining those fears as well as the “root causes” of why speaking up in relationships is more challenging for some than others.
Most importantly, we’ll share how speaking up actually brings you and your partner closer and can greatly enhance your emotional connection. Also helpful is recognizing that speaking up is indeed difficult and that as you work toward being more open with each other, you may also find that expressing your needs becomes easier over time.
Understanding Common Fears
Here’s what we often hear when a partner says he or she is afraid to let their significant other know what they’d like and what they need in the relationship:
- “I don’t want to upset my partner.”
- “He or she won’t understand my feelings.”
- “If I speak up about a sensitive issue, I’m afraid we’ll end up in an argument.”
- “It won’t make a difference — and then will leave us with unresolved feelings.”
- “It’s early in our relationship — I fear we’ll break up if I tell my partner what I need.”
When we list these common themes — and, of course, there are many others — it’s easy to see that the basic root of speaking up in relationships is fear.
We emphasize this point because we know from research studies that fear of becoming more distant from our partner is at the core of many couples’ concerns.
“But My Partner Should Know What I Need Without My Needing to Tell Him or Her!”
Indeed, there is a part of us that believes we should not have to express our needs to the person closest to us. He or she should be fully aware.
We can thank Hollywood for this belief, as romantic partners on the screen seem to instinctively know just what their partner wants. These lovers seem to have such a flow together.
However, we ordinary humans can’t always know what our partner needs in every situation. The path to our heart is a moving target, after all. Our needs can change with each passing event.
So, let’s take that deeper dive into understanding how we may fear speaking up in relationships.
What We Learned Growing Up About Speaking Up
In his family, his parents were often uncomfortable talking about emotions and, at times, he was even chastised when he would seek comfort or reassurance from either parent. They wanted him to be independent and confident. So, emotions were seen as weakness for their son.
Her family was complicated. Her father’s frequent alcohol abuse caused arguments between her parents, and her mother was often the main breadwinner, at times working a second job. As a child, she did not want to be the cause of any additional problems between her parents in their fragile marriage. If she needed anything — whether a new pair of sneakers or comfort — she became fearful of making her needs known.
Neither of these youngsters had positive experiences with expressing their needs, afraid of rocking the boat or shame for making needs known.
We know from research that childhood experiences of all types can have profound — and sometimes lasting — influence on adulthood relationships. Fortunately, we also know that we can learn new ways of interacting as adults to have happier, healthier and more loving relationships.
When we bring this to light, please note we are not blaming parents, who had the best of intentions and in no way wanted to limit their kids’ success in life. However, as adults we can increase our awareness of our deeper feelings and work to set our lives (and our relationships) on a different path.
Our Very-Human Desire and Need to Belong
We’ve heard folks bemoan that they are “people pleasers” and that they fear rejection if they speak up. And, we understand that this fear is strongest in your relationship with your spouse or partner.
You may also find it difficult to speak up to others as well. Your fear of expressing your needs and wants may also occur in the workplace, with friends and with family members.
The closer and more important the relationship, the higher the “stakes” of speaking up: We truly may fear we won’t be loved or accepted if we discuss difficult topics with our partner or bring up our needs and wants.
And, here’s why:
When we fall in love, we form a powerful emotional and physical bond with our partner. As humans evolved, we became hard-wired to seek the security and comfort of a special person. People naturally seek relationships with others — parents first, family, and then a close circle of friends. We have this innate desire to be close to others and, as adults, our partner becomes the one we turn to for reassurance and comfort.
It’s common for us to hear, “I only get this upset with my partner when we’re arguing. I’m not so emotional with anyone else.” That is your “bond” talking! Your closest and most important connection began with your parents and then switched to your romantic partner as an adult.
Dire Consequences When We Don’t Speak Up
When we are not speaking up in relationships — particularly with our partner, the results can include:
- We can build a resentment from a time when we felt disappointed in our partner; these unspoken and unresolved feelings can then last for years.
- We may later find the negative but unspoken feelings are hard to contain — leading us to outbursts of anger and more frequent arguments. The arguments can cause us to feel less connected and secure — and, remember, we are hard-wired to seek comfort with our partner.
- Children can be impacted by the arguments and the tension between the two of you.
- Over time with continued arguments, there is often greater disconnection, which can result in less intimacy, greater feelings of rejection and a fraying of that emotional bond you shared earlier in your relationship.
It may be a challenge to realize that your partner also may be uncomfortable at first with these “deeper” conversations. You both can have an unspoken fear of losing each other and of creating unresolved conflict in your relationship.
Disagreements Are Often Inevitable
No two people are always on the same page. Successful couples, however, learn to manage and handle disagreements in positive ways. They learn to be “curious before furious” about their partner’s beliefs and views related to a situation. They learn to resolve differences rather than let them linger.
And, they learn to avoid two key triggers for bringing about anger: “Always” and “Never.”
When we use either term, couples are headed for escalating arguments, such as, “You always ignore me . . .” “You never remember. . .”
Both terms are very accusatory and usually untrue: Rarely do we “always” or “never” do or don’t do something. Yet, when we’ve held in our resentments and we’re frustrated with our partner, it certainly can feel valid.
Taking Risks, Being Vulnerable and Making Our Needs Known
Let’s look again at that fear of speaking up in relationships, and what the experts have to say.
Dr. Susan Johnson, the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, notes in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” “It is one thing to acknowledge and accept your own emotional reality, but another to open it up to your partner. This is a great leap for those of us who have little experience of real safety with others.”
So, if we did not learn it was acceptable and welcome to speak up as a child or in our previous romantic relationships, it is indeed daunting to begin now.
In “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies,” which was written by two leading experts in the process, the authors help readers understand the fear of speaking up in relationships: “Fear is not built into human beings to be ignored . . .Fear signals that you need to deal with the core of the issue.” They emphasize that successful couples “connect in their fear” by taking a risk of vulnerability to share their feelings.
Dr. Johnson also points out that speaking up is difficult: “If this is too hard to do, take a smaller step and talk about how difficult it is to explicitly formulate and state your needs. Tell your partner if there is some way he or she can help you with this.”
Growing Closer Together
If opening up is so difficult, why should we try? Dr. Johnson addresses this: “Because we long for connection and remaining sad and defended and isolated is a sad and empty way to live.”
When we risk being vulnerable and share our feelings and emotions with our partner, we open the door to receiving the support and caring we crave. Yes, it feels daunting at first; however, the rewards lie in the new closeness and richness that can be achieved.
As we take steps to break the cycle of holding resentments, we can move past old hurts and learn to prevent new issues from lingering and fueling disconnection.
We’ve devoted a number of blog articles to couples’ communication: You might also find helpful:
- We cover some basics in Communication in Relationships: Learn to Be Deeply Understood.
- To learn more about emotions in your relationship: Emotional Communication: Getting to What Truly Matters.
- Learn more about Emotionally Focused Therapy