Fixing It: The Quickest Way to Make Your Partner Feel Unsafe

lightbulbs and hammers

David Cutler for the Chronicle

Anxiety blocks connection. This maxim holds true in all relationships from lovers to parent/child to co-workers. I know this to be true based on experience and research. Worry takes away safety and energy. If we do not feel at ease, our brains are essentially hijacked. We can’t think or love at a quality level.

When and where advice is welcome

As a writer and personal coach, I’ve done a lot of research on the subjects of relationships, personal development and neuroscience. Admittedly, when I see an opportunity to apply this accumulated knowledge, it is difficult to hold back. In my coaching and writing practices, the information is generally well received. In all other relationships, not so much.

How can I say this nicely? You need to be quiet

My boyfriend recently shared information regarding a subject important and dear to him. I was thrilled he shared openly with me. My first impulse? To prescribe steps to make it better. He then proceeded to tell me, as diplomatically as possible, how he would prefer I just listen when he shares about such issues. He said he understands I’ve read and learned a lot about the subject, but if I want him to continue to share, I need to simply listen.

Doh!

I’m not going to lie. I felt cut off and frustrated, at first. But then channeling my inner Stephen Covey (Covey was so wise), I decided to “seek first to understand”. I asked my boyfriend questions to get history on the subject. As I learned more, I had more empathy for him. I had more clarity about how this was not something that could be fixed with a few calculated steps.

I let my natural reactions surface. I tried to look him in the eye as we talked. I squeezed his hand as we held hands.

This seems familiar

I remembered how I felt when past partners told me what to do and how to improve my ways. I felt small. I felt inferior. I felt anxious and broken.

I had wanted to feel loved.

Had years with fixit partners rubbed off on me? Do I now feel like I always know the better way to do things? Uh… sometimes. I know checking up on someone and questioning their abilities erodes trust. I’m going to have to check myself.

When the heart and ego are involved, safety and non-judgmental reactions are the most valuable resources to provide. Reassurance and comfort ease anxiety. They loosen the knot in our stomach and allow us to let our guard down. Even with my coaching clients, I have to earn their trust before they consider undertaking the challenges I give them.

The last thing I want my guy to do is stop sharing with me. I know I have to earn his trust by not solving issues and just loving and listening to him. I can offer reassurance by consistently being there for him. I can offer safety by reminding him of all the positive relational experiences we have.

A full and well-resourced person has the energy and desire to work on personal growth. If we feel supported, we can venture out and try new things and then return to our safe haven.

He gives me a feeling of safety. I never feel judged or small with him. I’ve never had such reassurance with a partner. I will strive to do the same for him.

What is your first instinct when someone tells you their worries? Are you a Mr./Ms. Fixit? How could you be more comforting and present? Do you ever want someone to solve your problems?

If you’d like help learning how to build trust and reassurance with your partner please contact me for relationship coaching. 

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5 Comments

  1. Jenny
    April 20, 2017

    I’ve always felt unsupported and neglected from my family and my ex-husband. It felt like I had to learn everything in life through trial and error because I never had guidance just very permissive parents who were never involved in my life. I never once had a talk with my parents or friends about how to avoid something or a situation or how to do something (with the exception of teachers giving me an education), I didn’t have that person who gave me solutions or reassured me.

    So that’s likely made me opposite to most people who dont like someone to give them solutions.

    I, personally, would ABSOLUTELY LOVE love LOVE someone to give me solutions and tips/hacks to life, to show me something, to guide me etc and I think that’s why I’m always reading to see if there is a way I can learn through other people’s mistakes rather than having to learn them the hard way.

    If you ever want to give someone solutions, I’m here for the taking.

    Reply
    • Brenda Knowles
      April 20, 2017

      Jenny I can relate to you as well. For years, I loved how my ex-husband taught me things about finances, networking, organizing, future planning, etc. I ate it up. But then, after a while it felt like I was always being schooled or judged. It wasn’t helpful. It felt like he was always being critical of me and everyone else. I think the best thing to do is say you would like advice if you truly want it. If you don’t, ask for a listening ear and support. Thank you for making a good point. I agree sometimes we want help and real solutions, not just silence or rephrased versions of what we said already.

      Reply
  2. Michael
    April 18, 2017

    Brenda, an important post.

    Advice is seldom wanted. Unasked for advice is the worst. Even asked for advice — be careful. It’s very easy to diminish someone with advice.

    When someone — which is rare — asks me for advice, I often simply turn it around and ask, ‘Well, what do you think would be best?’ They ALWAYS have an answer. They NEVER say … ‘No, seriously, what do you think?’ They don’t want to know what I think!

    And that’s when they ASK for advice.

    Unasked for? My ‘advice’ … lolol … don’t give advice! It can be absolutely deadly.

    My second wife could not seem to help herself. She wanted to give me advice on, my god, all parts of my life. From a business she didn’t really know (and she had never run a business), to … well, it was a lot of advice. That I never or rarely asked for.

    Eventually, I told her, ‘I don’t want your advice. If I do, I’ll ask for it. If I don’t ask for it, assume I don’t want it.’ It was blunt, but it was the only thing she would hear.

    When I first suggested to her that nobody wants unasked for advice, she was, I could tell, actually astounded — you mean people might not WANT her advice? She really couldn’t quite grasp it, as I think she had gotten accustomed to giving advice all her life. She was giving advice as a young child, to grown adults.

    In some people, it is just inbred, I suppose. Wired in there. But it’s deadly.

    We just want someone to listen. That’s all.

    We pay therapists whatever we pay them, to LISTEN. Advice? hell, not really what we want. Just listen, baby! Just watch me while I’m talking … smile … nod in appropriate places … encourage … sympathize. omg, so simple! And because we can’t get that from the one we’re with, we go to a therapist and spend a ton!

    One of the greatest of all gifts? To sit quiet … listen … BE interested … ask questions, as you did … and do NOT give advice. And even if asked for … be careful. He or she probably just wants affirmation that he’s doing great, she can handle this. you’re with him / her every step of the way.

    If my second wife could have just stayed quiet, basically, when I was talking … just listened … yes, nodded supportively, encouraged, smiled … and said nothing … if she could have just heard me, without interrupting, without feeling like she had to tell me a single thing … if she had just learned to listen and encourage and hear me and accept whatever it was I was saying … well, who knows? It would have been a very different outcome, I think. But she always had something to say. And I don’t recall a single time where what she had to say was what I needed: ‘You’re awesome, you’re beautiful, I believe in you, I’m here for you and with you all the way no matter what.’ those kinds of things.

    If we want to put in a few words when we’re listening to someone? Ask questions. questions show interest. Just like you did, Brenda. Asking questions allows the one we’re with, to open up. And when he or she opens up, to us, then we get into real intimacy. And the more we listen … and we don’t judge … we want to know … and we don’t freak out when some surprise comes out … then we’re getting REALLY intimate. And few relationships get there. We’re too afraid of being judged, put down, etc.

    God. such simple stuff. But we feel compelled to somehow prove our worth, or something, by telling someone how to live their life.

    Believe me, I have learned the hard way. I used to feel like I had to give advice — hell, I used to think I actually knew what was best! I have regrets about advice I did give, that people followed. People I love.

    Now I just try to ask questions, listen, support that person in what he or she actually wants to do. You get ’em talking, they figure it out for themselves. Almost always, they already know. they just need some space and time to figure it out. And being heard is a powerful way to discover it. And we need a person to give us that — that attention. That feeling that we’re smart, capable. Otherwise we may as well talk to a wall. But that doesn’t work. A person who loves us? Who hears us? Believes in us? those can change everything for us.

    We don’t need others to tell us what to do. We need to learn to listen to our own inner voice.

    The irony of it? The advice we might offer, is what WE would do. It’s not necessarily at all what is best for the one we love. To assume that we know best? Caution … you’re entering the danger zone … and I’ve made the mistakes of giving advice that, well, i wish I would have just shut up.

    And sometimes, we might have in mind what we need to do. And we start sharing, and the person we’re sharing with pipes in with, perhaps, the very thing we thought of doing, or how to handle it. I mean, the options are usually fairly limited, so it’s not surprising that would happen. But now it’s not OUR solution. Now it’s somebody telling us what to do. Somebody maybe making us feel sort of dumb, or less.

    It’s very easy to make people feel stupid, less, diminished. A glance. A tone of voice. A look. A few words. So easy …

    I’ve learned to let people talk. I’ll listen. I’ll encourage. I’ll believe and support.

    Sorry for the long reply. This is something that I’ve experienced, that i detested, that did nothing positive. all along, just kind listening and support … well, who knows how marriage #2 might have been different.

    funny thing? when she could no longer give advice — i mean, i had made it clear, i don’t want it unless i ask for it — she didn’t know what to do. she didn’t know how to listen. she didn’t know how to ask questions. she really didn’t. she didn’t know how to start a conversation that would lead to intimacy. the only question she seemed to know to ask was .. ‘What are you thinking?’ she may as well have asked, ‘How are you?’ it had as much ‘probative value.’

    What am I thinking? geez. you mean this second? 10 seconds ago? a few minutes ago? it’s a lazy question. maybe I’m being picky. but i think it’s a dumb question. which i told her i didn’t like that question. but she continued to ask it, expecting different results. and never did figure out any other questions. she didn’t know how to offer positive encouragement. and she was left without the only thing she really knew how to do, that she felt gave her value. funny how things work.

    asking questions — THAT is a skill that few people have. that is who we turn to, if we can find that person: he or she actually asks good questions! indicating sincere interest! and to boot, they listen to us! Can I hear an ‘amen’! on this one!?

    you want to destroy a relationship? give unasked for advice. Interrupt the one who’s talking in mid-sentence — another thing I experienced with #2 over and over again. it was like, could you f-ing let me finish? omg … so frustrating.

    or answering questions FOR someone. my daughter is married to a tremendous guy. But i will tell you, it’s astounding. when we get together, and if we’re sitting at the same table, and I ask Nathan a question about his work, what he’s doing, how things are going … my daughter ALWAYS jumps in after 5 or 10 words out of Nate, and starts answering for him. my god she’s going to wreck that marriage. and when it ends, she will be clueless. because people with that compulsive need, haven’t a clue what they’re doing, how they’re diminishing the one they love. it’s slow. it erodes over time. and then one day … it’s over. poof! and the one who is left … is stunned and shocked, and is baffled. he or she forgot to just be quiet … and listen. with love.

    I’m letting out a lot of frustration over it all. I apologize if I’ve gone over the top here.

    Michael

    Reply
    • Brenda Knowles
      April 19, 2017

      I always love your replies Michael. They help me cement lessons in my head. I know I need to work on just listening and encouraging. I will remember your cautions and wisdom. I have seen and personally experienced the beauty of just being heard and supported. I want to give that to others. Thank you for your important insight!! 🙂

      Reply
    • Jenny
      April 20, 2017

      Hi Michael, could you kindly give examples or advice on how to ask good questions, one that would have made you feel important by your ex wife instead of just What are you thinking? I want to be a great mum but I have no examples of how to be except the internet.

      If someone just listened to me (without questions) I would think they just wanted to hear the goss /my troubles ( to feel better about their own lives or have something to gossip about) and that person had no interest in helping me find a solution.

      Reply
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