It’s always okay to talk about how you feel

In many of my romantic relationships, we’ve gotten stuck in a situation that goes something like this. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Pace: “I feel insecure about our relationship. I’m afraid that our differences will eventually make us incompatible.”

Kyeli: “Well, I was feeling fine, but knowing that you’re feeling insecure triggers my abandonment issues and makes me feel worried, and now I’m feeling insecure and scared too.”

Pace: “Yikes, knowing you’re feeling insecure makes me feel triply insecure.”

And so on and so forth. It doesn’t even need to be as heavy an issue as insecurity or abandonment, it can be something like this:

Kyeli: “Honey, I would really appreciate some more physical affection from you. Just a hug and a kiss at some random point during the evening would be super great.”

Pace: “Whoa, where did this come from? I thought our level of affection was totally fine! It was totally fine the last time we talked. Has this been building up and you haven’t brought it up until now? I’m feeling blindsided and defensive.”

Kyeli: “Hey, I was just talking honestly about my feelings! I thought we said it was always okay to talk about our feelings, but I don’t feel okay about it if you’re going to bite my head off when I bring something up.”

When two (or more) people have triggers that bump up against each other, it can easily lead to a downward spiral. It seems like the easiest solution is to avoid the triggery issue — for it to not be always okay to talk about how you feel. And that’s exactly what will happen if you’re not careful, especially if anyone involved tends to avoid conflict. *points at self*

If you feel it’s important to maintain a high level of openness and closeness in your relationship, though, then that’s not something you want to give up. You want it to be okay to talk about your feelings, even when they will be triggery for the other person.

The solution is to take responsibility for your own feelings.

This is not an easy solution. In fact, sometimes it’s the exact wrong solution. If your partner is being manipulative or verbally abusive, then taking responsibility for your own feelings is enabling them to continue manipulating or abusing you. But if your partner is communicating openly and authentically without ulterior motive, then the only way to provide a safe space for them to express their feelings is to own your reactions — to take responsibility for them.

Notice this phrase that Kyeli said:

…knowing that you’re feeling insecure triggers my abandonment issues and makes me feel worried

That phrase is a red flag that you’re not taking responsibility for your own feelings. We were decently good about using “I” statements, but the “makes me feel” language still slips through sometimes. Notice when you catch yourself saying “this makes me feel” and take heed. Is the other person pushing your buttons on purpose or by accident? If there’s nothing ulterior going on, then that’s a signal to take responsibility for your feelings.

Taking responsibility for your feelings isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But it’s the only way I know of to stop the downward spiral of triggers triggering other triggers and everyone ending up hurt and upset at each other for talking about how they feel.

Let’s see how those examples turn out if we take responsibility for our feelings instead of turning things around on each other:

Pace: “I feel insecure about our relationship. I’m afraid that our differences will eventually make us incompatible.”

Kyeli: “Yikes, that’s a touchy subject for me.”

Pace: “I know; I understand you have abandonment triggers. I’m here for you, and in general I’m feeling happy in our relationship. *puts hand on Kyeli’s knee* I just need to talk about how I’m feeling.”

Kyeli: “Okay. I want to have that conversation with you, but right now I’m freaking out a little because I feel like you just said you weren’t happy or secure in our relationship, so I’ll need some reassurance before I’m ready. Is that okay?”

Pace: “Of course, sweetie.”

And here’s the alternate universe version of our other conversation:

Kyeli: “Honey, I would really appreciate some more physical affection from you. Just a hug and a kiss at some random point during the evening would be super great.”

Pace: “I’m feeling surprised and upset about this I thought everything was fine. I’m not angry with you, I just need to talk about it. Is that okay?”

Kyeli: “Well, I feel a little annoyed and cut off, but it’s totally okay; I don’t think you did anything wrong. And I do want to listen to you and hear about why you’re feeling surprised and upset. So go ahead. I’m all ears.”

In each of these examples, a blocking issue came up that made it difficult or impossible to continue the original conversation. We took a time out and had some meta-communication. We dealt with it openly, compassionately, and responsibly, and then afterwards we were able to return to the original issue wholeheartedly because we successfully removed the block.

This is challenging for both people involved. It’s tough for the person initially bringing up the issue because they’re setting aside their original concerns to deal with their partner’s reaction first. It’s tough for the person who gets triggered because their initial reaction is to be defensive, but they’re overcoming that and taking responsibility for their feelings.

The principle of “It’s always okay to talk about your feelings” may not be a good fit for your relationship. Kyeli and I have a close interdependent relationship, so it works very well for us. If your relationship style is different, you may find a different solution (and we’d love to hear about it!), but for us, this has worked amazingly well.

We hope it works amazingly well for you too!