Who can I talk to about hard things with my partner?

Dear Bear;

My partner and I have been struggling for a while. We are each other’s best friends and confidantes, and so these current struggles are especially hard. I feel like I have no one to talk to — I would normally consult my partner! I’m worried about oversharing with my friends, but I can’t keep all of this bottled up anymore.

The thing is that I feel confident this will get worked through and pass, or at least I feel that way most of the time. So I worry that if I discuss it all with a friend they’ll take on all my upset and blame my partner and never like them again, even when the issues are resolved. How do I figure out how to discuss this and with whom?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

When I am king of the world, everyone will have free access to therapy if they need it (and elocution lessons also, because my hearing is really starting to go) for many reasons, and this is one of them. Of COURSE this is hard, Brave Correspondent. You shouldn’t have to keep all your feelings in a jar in the back of the cupboard, both because this is hard on your human experience and also because the best way to move through hard feelings is giving them light and fresh air.

I am aware, intellectually, that there are people for whom keeping all their feelings to themselves is fine, and for whom the prospect of sharing some portion of their tender interior landscape is anxiety-producing. That’s clearly not you, and it also isn’t me. This may also be one of those things where a natural extrovert will really benefit from talking through a problem multiple times and seeing what each new series of responses brings, and a natural introvert may prefer to think all their thoughts until they come to something and then share once, to see if it sounds the same outside their own head as it does inside. Let us just work in phases here, if we could. The key piece, to my mind, is figuring out with whom you, personally, based on your own needs and values, can share these details and what is fair to share.

Staring with whom: I would say first you need to try to understand, within yourself, what you want from this confidante. Do you want someone who will take your side and validate all your feelings? Do you want someone who will problem-solve and try to advise you about how to deal? Do you want someone who will maintain a relentless neutrality and just sort of function as a sounding board, periodically making “hmmm” noises so you know they’re still alive while you rant? Some combination of these things? Something else? If you know what kind of help you’re shopping for it’s considerably easier to get the help you need (and not the kind you don’t, which is more important in this instance then perhaps some others).

Why in this instance? Because the risk of having your confidant take on your momentary upsets and hang on the them (and develop a resentment toward your partner) after you’ve let them go is real and I think you’re right to be worried. And let’s be honest – isn’t it harder in some ways to forgive a slight or injury against a loved one than the same against one’s self? I can, and do, let go of all manner of bullshit that comes my way – right up to intense and specific upsets that would definitely piss you off on my behalf if I recounted them here – but let someone aggress against my family? Oh, no. So this is a needle you’ll have to thread when you find your sounding board/s.

An additional factor: the world is full of gossip and people who share it. Usually, I’ve come to understand, people don’t mean anything bad by it. But information is valuable and whoever said that secrets are the currency of intimacy is right (ah, it was Frank Warren, the PostSecret guy). In my experience, sharing secrets about someone can be as much about demonstrating closeness with them, weird as it sounds; like “I have information about their life you don’t have, therefore I am the closer friend.” People can be weirdly competitive about this, especially in our social media age (which I fully recognize makes me sound like the Oldest Old Man in Old Manville but also there are so many ways to be “friends” or “mutuals” with someone in 2019 that people really relish the unmediated experience of friendship that much more, I think). This is part of why choosing the right person becomes important.

Bearing all that in mind, should you do this? My feeling is: yes. Keeping all our feelings bottled up is terrible for us and sometimes in conversation with a trusted human we can let go of some hard stuff. Becoming a pressure-cooker of hard feelings is a one-way ticket to exploding all over your partner when you can’t keep it all contained anymore, and I am here to tell you from personal experience that’s not a winning situation for anybody. And you also are a person, Brave Correspondent, who deserves to have comfort and tending both within and beyond your partnership.

So for me, a crucial piece is going to be choosing wisely about to whom you reveal all of this. I am a fan in these instances of the close-but-out-of-town friend. Not someone who you and/or your partner see frequently at local events, but someone you might see a few times a year but keep in touch with via phone or text regardless. It’s especially good if this person is relatively of an even temperament, and even better if they are, by nature, an optimist – someone who can come to a situation with every expectation that they can work their way toward a good outcome. And of course, someone who can commit to you that they will keep your confidence and who has proven to be a solid human in this way in the past. A common expression for this might be a stand-up guy but of course neither standing nor being a guy is required and we don’t need any misogyny or ableism in our advice this morning. Nevertheless: you want someone who embodies the qualities people are nodding at when they use that phrase – someone accountable, responsible, engaged, and with their own solid values and ethics.

And then, you check in that they’re up for this. I know there’s been whole lot on the tweeters recently about emotional labor and if people are in a place to give support and so forth, and while I think those can be good conversations to have that’s not what I mean. You’re asking your friend to do at least two things that are specific: keep what you say confidential and not judge your partner though the process. Before you open the floodgates, I would encourage that you check in briefly and make sure your friend is okay with this, as well as the style of feedback you need. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, you can just say something like: “I need a place to put all these feelings about my relationship with Ebenezer and I was hoping you might be willing to listen to me talk about it a lot and say soothing things and then forget everything I told you and never speak of it again. Is that cool with you?”

After you pick a person, based on what you need from them and how they are positioned relative to you/your partner(s)/your relationship – and they consent to be the person who hears all of this – the last phase of discernment becomes: what do you share? Everything? Some of it? A carefully curated selection? My recommendation: your feelings about everything. For sure a narrative of the issue will be required, and you can’t just move into the part where you drop a bunch of disconnected feelings into the space between you and your confidant friend, but I would encourage you, Brave Correspondent, to focus on the parts of this disclosure that are less news and more weather. Which means you may need to let go of any desire you have to rehearse in detail each and every aggravating moment that Ebenezer ever failed to do the correct thing with the laundry/cat/bills/calendar/his hunky boyfriend Jacob and instead stick closer to what kinds of feelings it brings up for you when he does it.

I appreciate and value that you’re viewing this as a squall and not climate change, Brave Correspondent, and I think long-term partnerships of all types have squalls and storms that need to be weathered somehow. Having a friend or even two who can hear all your feelings about things and then just gently let them go when the storm has passed on the last zephyr leaving town is a real help and good plan. Being flexible and seeking solutions rather than to be the one who gets to be Right is a good look in a long-term relationship, Brave Correspondent, and I hope this weather passes soon and it’s sunny skies for a good long while after.

love and courage,

Bear

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