Helping Your Clients Find the Courage to Make a Vulnerable Disclosure

Have you seen this scenario play out in your therapy room? One partner gathers their courage and shares something vulnerable, or reveals a secret, or a private desire. And then their partner feels hurt and freaks right out with a big emotional response.

The hurt partner’s feelings are usually perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, it is also understandable that their partner has not been eager to share deeply. It’s hard to come clean or get vulnerable when you have reason to expect an intense, dramatic reaction in response.

I think a really beautiful differentiated stance for any relationship is “I really want you to be honest with me, and I promise not to punish you for anything that you tell me.” That’s a big ask for a lot of people. It’s a courageous promise to make, and a difficult one to keep. But that’s the kind of courage that a differentiated relationship ultimately requires.

“Not punishing” means not blowing up, not sulking, not seeking revenge, and not holding a grudge. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have and acknowledge your feelings. But discussing your feelings and responses is an art form, especially when you don’t want to discourage your partner from honestly talking to you about hard things.

Some conflict-avoidant partners need a lot of encouragement to open up, and part of effective encouragement is getting skilled at managing reactive emotions in the face of distressing disclosures. One strategy might be to make a pact to thank one another for sharing, try to access curiosity, and hold the reactions and/or responses for a later time.

Or you could try saying something like “I’m having a bunch of feelings here, and I want you to know. I don’t need you to change anything, and I’m really glad you told me that, I just need a little time to think and adjust.” Compare these responses to “How dare you say that to me?” or “Don’t ever bring that up to me again.” One opens the door for further conversation and increased depth and connection, and the other slams the door shut and makes further sharing much less likely.

Taking the leap to the differentiated stance of welcoming disclosures, no matter how challenging, requires you to answer to this question: Do you want to know your partner? Really know them? Or are you ok with only seeing the sanitized, people-pleasing facade most of us present when we aren’t ready to really get vulnerable?

The facade might make for fewer uncomfortable feelings–at least for awhile, until something comes up that must be discussed. Many people can have a whole relationship without uncomfortable disclosures. But when the rubber meets the road, those relationships often end. Long term, healthy relationships, full of evolution, growth, and change, require deep trust in one another’s ability to share, and also to hold steady and get curious when the other shares.

This is the kind of challenge that calls on both partners to be their best selves: brave, patient, and compassionate.Think of it as the “growing pains” of a relationship moving towards differentiation. If a couple can get through it, they will emerge with a stronger, more resilient connection than ever before.

The Case For Going “Slow and Steady” To Resolve Couple Conflict

One of the most important skills I help couples build is the ability to tolerate tension between partners. The impulse to hurry up and find a solution is undeniable. Being in tension with a disagreement or two different points of view is extremely anxiety-producing and, for some, excruciating. If only there were a simple solution or a quick resolution, the pain would end, right? But when couples rush to a resolution, they often make mistakes that end up damaging their relationship in the long term.

For instance, one person may give way, and decide to “just let go of it” or “agree” in order to get their partner off their back. This stops the conflict in the moment, but it’s a recipe for building resentment over time, as well as for broken promises down the line.

Any big difference of opinion will take time to resolve. Your clients are likely to want a quick fix, but allowing things to move too fast will end up either entrenching both partners in their positions, fanning the flames of conflict, or forcing one partner to give way.

Instead, try these strategies:

  • Normalize the disagreement. Every long term couple has substantial differences, and there is nothing that makes that an emergency, in and of itself.
  • Remind them that a solid functional resolution is the goal, not a fake agreement or glossing over something important.
  • See if you can help them get curious about why their partner might see things they way they do. This is an exciting stage of relationship. This is how partners learn about their differences.
  • Support the curiosity, and guide the conversation deeper, holding space for tension, not resolution. This will create an atmosphere of creative thought and empathy rather than anxiety and hasty attempts to soothe.
  • Breathe. This can be challenging for therapists, who also would feel better if there were a simple resolution. Be gentle with yourself and go slow.

By taking time to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, rather than rushing to an imperfect solution, your clients will learn more about each other and themselves, and build the skills they need to handle the next conflict that comes up. Guiding your clients along this process is the key to nurturing their relationship’s long-term growth, rather than simply rehashing the fight of the week.

There’s No Such Thing as a One-Size-Fits-All Relationship Agreement

In my work as a couples therapist, I’ve seen that successful, happy relationships come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve found that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for a good relationship–and that, in general, relationships work best when the people in them work together to create the agreements that make sense for them.

Working with polyamory, in particular, has shown me that there’s an infinite variety of possible ways to structure a relationship. That means that poly people are more likely to spend time actively considering and discussing what kinds of agreements best fit their unique situation, desires, and needs. This is a practice that I think a lot of monogamous people could benefit from.

Because monogamy is the norm in our culture, it’s common for monogamous couples to assume they’re on the same page about what’s acceptable within their relationship. But if you look beneath the surface, things get a lot more complicated.

Consider: can you define what, exactly, constitutes cheating within your relationship? Is watching porn ok? What about fantasizing about other people? Or flirting? If you feel pretty clear about these agreements, take it a little deeper. What constitutes porn that is and isn’t comfortable for your partner? Are there types of fantasy that are ok, and others that are not?  How about flirting? Where exactly does it cross the line? Can you say for sure, or is the boundary a bit fuzzy? If you asked your partner, would they agree?

There’s a reason that people often don’t have these kinds of detailed discussions about where the boundaries of their relationships are. It can feel quite uncomfortable. What do you do if you discover you’re not on the same page? What if you find out you have already done something that your partner isn’t comfortable with, or vice versa? Maybe it feels easier and less threatening to leave the boundary a bit fuzzy. But that just leaves the door open for a more dramatic disagreement down the road.

During these conversations, it is very likely that some differences of opinion will emerge between you and your partner. That’s okay. A difference is not a threat as long as you are able to respect and listen to each other’s viewpoints. Hold space for the difference, and resist the urge to solve it by changing your partner’s mind or giving up your own viewpoint immediately. Remember that by having this discussion now you’re providing yourself with ample time to discuss and discover where you are each coming from, without the added pressure of a perceived betrayal of trust.

Ask yourself: what kind of relationship agreements are congruent with my own values, my own moral code, and my own sense of self? Then try to listen, with an open mind and a compassionate ear, to your partner’s answer to the same question. Appreciate the common ground you discover, and explore the differences with non-judgmental curiosity. There is always more to learn about yourself and your partner.

If you want to learn more about building a strong relationship, here are some other pieces I’ve written on the topic:

Sexual Intimacy and Vulnerability: Paths to Personal Growth

Better Than ‘Better Half’

Sex and Differentiation of Self

What Polyamory Can Teach Us About ALL Relationships

How to Keep Fights from Damaging Your Relationship