When you’ve watched enough romantic comedies, you can begin to identify the most popular, often repetitive, narratives. There’s the polar opposites couple that ultimately discovers they have more things in common than they’d like to admit; the couple who appears to be the perfect match on paper but ultimately are very much misaligned; and lastly the couple where one partner wants to build a deep level of intimacy, and one partner struggles to allow for vulnerability. The last narrative is one that appears not only in film, but in multiple forms of pop culture and understandably so.
Many people have been taught to put up a guard rather than allow people to see what they’re going through. Just think of all the times a friend, or even a partner, has asked about your day and despite having the absolute worst day possible, you simply respond “it was fine.” Even though you know your day was anything but fine, vulnerability isn’t always the easiest practice to access.
One of the most life changing types of love many hope to experience is one where you are able to show up completely authentically. There’s a sense of freedom that comes with giving your partner a front row seat to parts of yourself you previously didn’t dream of ever bringing outside of your own head.
Finding yourself in a romantic partnership where you can show up as the complete you, can be transformational.
The problem? Engaging in a relationship dynamic where your vulnerability causes you to unpack all of the things you’re struggling with, with a partner, has the potential to create a dynamic where they feel less like your partner and more like your therapist.
Dr. Patrice N Douglas, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, with expertise in treating issues impacting Black men and women. Dr. Jacqueline Sherman, or Dr. Jac, is a licensed psychologist, relationship coach, and intimacy coach. They both shared their expertise on action steps couples can take to avoid a therapist-client relationship dynamic in an effort for more vulnerability, and gave advice on what to do if you’re already in that dynamic.
Make sure your partner isn’t your only resource for support
Suddenly having a person to navigate the ups and downs of life with, can easily make a person feel like their partner is the most important person in their world. But ditching your long-time support systems and relying solely on a partner is not a wise solution.
According to Dr. Douglas, “we can’t expect everything from one person,” so people in relationships should ask themselves: “outside of you, does your partner have other people they can also find support in if you don’t have the capacity?”
“For the people that don’t necessarily have an additional outlet, for example, people that don’t have a therapist, that don’t have supportive friends, that don’t have other people that they’re vulnerable with in their life, it can be a slippery slope because they don’t necessarily have someone else that they feel trustworthy enough to open up about,” Dr. Jac said.
Figure out your reason for sharing your struggles with your partner
Many people can relate to having a day where you simply want to crawl into bed, dish out your favorite ice cream, and cry in your partner’s arms while sharing every detail of what went wrong, but do you ever think about what you hope to gain from having that conversation? Well if not, the answer is you should.
Dr. Douglas encouraged a person preparing to share their struggles with their partner to evaluate their “intention” in doing so.
“Are they sharing because they are trying to get you to understand where they’re coming from as far as their lens, or are they telling you because obviously they haven’t done the proper work to navigate some of these areas that they’re concerned with?” Dr. Douglas said.
Dr. Jac pointed out the importance of recognizing whether you are being vulnerable about your struggles for the purpose of “ruminating or asking for advice.”
“Rumination, I feel like, is a big thing that happens in relationships, which is like we’re venting to a partner, we’re getting out, we’re sharing some of the things that we may be holding that are painful, but there’s no solution,” Dr. Jac said.
“I think that this is when that dynamic can get kind of murky because your partner is just like constantly holding space for you, but you’re not necessarily getting the solutions that you would need in order to actually move past whatever it is you’re dealing with.”
Dr. Douglas also shared how a partner continuously harping on their same issues without examining possible solutions can fall into a pattern of feeling like therapy.
“That’s really when it becomes a therapy session: when it feels like you’re telling me the same thing over and over, but you’re not doing anything about it, and you’re expecting me to just hear you, accept it, and not be affected by it,” said Dr. Douglas.
Find a dedicated time to discuss your issues with your partner. Try not to spring things on them
While it’s understandable that emergency situations will come up where you need the support of your partner, you should still make an effort to have regular check-in conversations about your struggles outside of crisis mode.
“Couples that typically have time they dedicate for building emotional intimacy tend to do better with not overburdening one another when it comes to vulnerability,” Dr. Jac said.
“A good tip is having a regular date where you’re checking in once a week with your partner. You guys take 30 minutes and schedule it on the calendar and you just do an emotional check in. How can I support you? How have you been?”
Dr. Jac emphasized the importance of these conversations being “reciprocal.”
“Sometimes there can be one partner who is just sharing so much in a vulnerable state that the other person doesn’t feel like they really have the space,” Dr. Jac said.
Dr. Douglas not only echoed the importance of having an established time to check in with a partner, but also emphasized the importance of that partner being in the right headspace to receive information.
“If you kind of just come in the door, and you’re just kind of spilling your guts, you’re throwing your partner off base,” Dr Douglas said. “You haven’t even checked in to see if they’re really even ready or available to hear what you’re about to say. Their minds might be all over the place.”
If your partner has already crossed that boundary of treating you like a therapist, here’s how to talk to them about it:
While it can seem easier to avoid having tough conversations in an attempt to avoid hurting your partner’s feelings, Dr. Douglas shared this is not a realistic expectation.
“When it comes to relationships, our feelings are going to get hurt,” Dr. Douglas said. “Instead of us trying to minimize by not speaking up, it’s all about the timing, the tone, and the approach.”
Dr. Jac shared an important roadmap for speaking with someone treating their partner like their therapist without discouraging that person to stop being vulnerable all together.
“Start with complimenting your partner’s vulnerability, and validating that because it’s hard to be vulnerable,” Dr. Jac said.
“I would say A. starting out with complimenting them, B. creating a suggestion for them to get additional support, and then C. offering to help with that process,” Dr. Jac continued. “I think that if you approach that conversation in a loving, compassionate way versus a judgmental way, the partner who has been vulnerable, I believe, will continue to remain open.”
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