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 Power of Checking Your Assumptions With Your Partner

In many ways, human beings are narrative creatures. We make sense of our world by telling stories about it, by picking out patterns and weaving them into the overarching narratives of our lives. Stories help us understand who we are, and how we fit into the world. They help us create meaning, identity, and connection.

Sometimes, though, you may find yourself telling a story that hurts you. You may attach your identity to a narrative that diminishes your self-worth: “I’m always passed over, always second-best.” “When people see what I’m really like, they leave.” “I’m such a disappointment. I never do anything right.” These stories can start from a single bad experience or a series of painful interactions, or they can come to you in messages from your culture. But as you retell them over and over, they start to feel like they reflect an essential truth about who you are and how you relate to the world.

These stories are pernicious because they color your perceptions of how other people interact with you. For instance, if your narrative is “Everyone gets sick of me eventually,” how will you react when your partner says, “I would really like some alone time tonight”? Will you think, “That’s ok, everyone needs alone time now and then, and I’m sure she’ll want to see me soon,” or will you go down a dark tunnel: “She’s finally started to get bored with me and now she’s distancing herself. She’s probably preparing to dump me.”

Telling this story prevents you from hearing what your partner is really saying, which is much more likely to be about them than about you. This then creates unnecessary stress, pain, and conflict. You’re acting out a conflict with yourself through your partner–and your partner may not even know the role that you’ve cast them in. But how do you fight a narrative that feels so instinctively true?

The first step is recognizing what negative stories you tell yourself. When you’re feeling bad, what messages do you give yourself? Once you identify the harmful narratives, it will be possible to notice when one of them starts running through your head.

Being more aware of the stories you tell yourself will give you the opportunity to pause and check your assumption with your partner, before you start to spin out. “Sweetheart, sometimes I worry that (fill in the blank.)” “Sometimes when I’m down, I start to think that (fill in the blank).” By doing this, you’ll give your partner the opportunity to let you know what they’re actually thinking in those moments–and it’s likely to be much, much less scary than you think. It requires a leap of faith to share your scary, vulnerable, revealing fears, but it’s worth it.

Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

It is tempting to spend a lot of time in therapy working on making the things that are going wrong in relationships go better. But what exactly is that effort supporting, if the partners don’t connect, are constantly at odds, and becoming fatigued by all the conflict?

In my opinion, at least half of therapy must be about creating, improving and multiplying positive interactions. If your clients don’t feel like their relationship is worth the effort, of they don’t get joy out of each other’s company, hopelessness will win in the end.

Therapy is hard, because working as a team in an intimate relationship involves becoming more curious and less reactive. Nobody is going to work hard to modify their automatic responses in a marriage where fun has become extinct.

There are a number of ways you can help your clients rediscover the joy in their relationships. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Help your clients remember positive interactions. Consider: What made them positive? How can the mood of those past interactions be re-created in current circumstances?
  • Create a positive interaction in your therapy room. I start most sessions by asking each partner to express appreciation or gratitude to their partner for something fairly specific they did or said recently that made a difference, and why. (A tip of my hat to the Developmental Model, once again!)
  • Remind your clients that positive aspects of their relationship continue to exist even when they’re not agreeing about something. Help them pay attention to those aspects of the relationship that are really working, and develop a practice of noticing and appreciating those moments.
  • Help clients create a daily positive interaction habit. Many clients already have at least one positive interaction each day, in which case it can be expanded to more, longer, or more meaningful. However, some clients many need to start small. Small or large,  being able to deliberately create a positive interaction is an indispensable skill for a strong relationship. It requires self-control, compartmentalization, making a clear choice, emotional regulation, motivation…all the skills couples need in order to function as a team.

As clients become better able to deliberately choose, create, and change the tone or atmosphere of an interaction, it becomes increasingly possible to help them have more productive conversations about tough topics. Helping each partner focus on their own individual interactional goals (for instance, responding with curiosity rather than defensiveness) will help them experience one another differently when they discuss their differences–as teammates and collaborators rather than adversaries. Creating positive experiences builds positive regard as well as goodwill and motivation. In the end, the couple will find themselves with the opportunity to build something MUCH better than either has ever imagined.