How do you help someone you love open up?

During our conversation on Saturday, where we talked about a lot of ‘deep’ topics, M mentioned that he doesn’t really talk about his feelings very much, in terms of work stress, school, and, before meeting me, his feelings, in general. While not surprising, what was surprising was his response to this question:

Me: “So, who did you talk to when you were going through your divorce? Your friends?”

M: “Well, nobody really.”

What? Seriously? He didn’t talk to anyone, just kept it in? Wow. That threw me for a loop because even though I struggle with sharing my feelings sometimes (IRL, clearly not on this blog!) and tend to hold things in, I can’t imagine not talking about how I was feeling as I went through divorce. I was relieved to hear that he had gone to a therapist (as did his ex, with him), but to go through life without opening up about stuff that’s bothering you has to be difficult.

I then asked: “But when you were married, you talked to your ex-wife about stuff that was bothering you from work or school, right?”

M: “No, not really.”

What?! Seriously (again)?! It was then that I realized that he does tend to keep work and school stresses relatively light in conversation, and rather focus on other things to talk about. It amazes me that we can get into some deep conversations, about ourselves, each other, and where we see our relationship going, but he holds in things that are bothering him outside of that. He told me that he will open up to me about work, but that a lot of what he experiences every day, illness, reckless behavior, death, does weigh on him and he tries not to ‘take that home,’ which of course is a good thing, but there are times when you just need to share. And I want him to share.

The same goes for school. He has to present his thesis in April and it’s crunchtime. I know he’s stressing about it, and he’s focusing more on it every night, but it’s a big project. Even his advisor thinks he may be biting off more than he can chew, but he’s determined to press on. And I really respect him for that. But I also know that it means he will be stressed and will need to focus on that and I am going to do everything I can to help him stay focused.

But how do you help someone you love open up?

Do you try to coax it out of them? Do you try to light the conversation and then just listen? Or do you offer advice?

I ask you…what would you do? I don’t want to push him away, I know he trusts me, but I also know it’s not the healthiest to just hold it all in, either.

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63 thoughts on “How do you help someone you love open up?

  1. I’ve found that lightly bringing up other subjects seems to lead him to opening up without his realizing it. For example when it comes to Iraq, I don’t want to pry. When another friend came back from Iraq, we were all instructed to listen if they talked about it but not to force them to talk about it. So when HS Marine brings it up now, I try to ask simple questions, like “What did you like the most?” That will usually lead him into a story or something similar. When he first got back, I remember his dad pestering him with questions like “Did you kill anyone?” “Did you fear for your life?” “What was the worst thing you saw?” That is exactly what you should NOT do!

    1. That’s actually really good advice. It’ll help him slowly open up. It has worked before, when I knew he had a rough day at work, with a simple question, it got to the crux of what it was that day that bothered him. Putting someone on hospice, who only had a few days to live. Um, yea, wow, that would be really heavy on my mind too.

  2. Well, I’m a big advocate of the “just listening” approach. I think that being healthy in a relationship sometimes means giving the other person space to figure out what they need on their own. Of course, it really sucks when you see your partner struggling, and you WANT to help, but you can make someone accept your help and advice if they’re not open to it.

    Just do your best to be there for him. Allow him to see that your relationship can and WILL! be different than the other ones that he’s had. As trust is gained, and you continue to demonstrate that you’re willing to listen, I believe that he will open up in time. But even if he doesn’t, it’s not your job to try and “make” him open up, even if you know that would be the best thing for him.

    These kinds of situations are tough, but I think that if you establish a pattern of listening without pushing him too much, that it will unfold naturally on it’s own. šŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Sunshine! You are so wise in all of this. I really think you’d have a great gig as a relationship therapist! You got it goin on šŸ˜‰ But seriously, this is exactly the approach that I think will work. And the last thing I want to do is push him away or force him either. I know in time, hopefully, he’ll open up more.

  3. Hmmm… I think you should ask questions, and listen. Pretty typical advice, right? I also think maybe you should take a cue from him, too. Some people are just really private.

    Look, I am totally with you, sister. I think things need to be discussed and loads relieved from chests. I also like to talk about things RIGHT NOW because then I feel better and nothing lingers. I’ve learned, however, that a lot of people DON’T operate this way.

    Sometimes putting questions out there (maybe as simple as “how was your day?”), and just letting him know you are open to talk about anything, are enough. If he takes you up on it, great! He may also seek you out later, when he’s ready to talk about it. He may not want to talk, though, in which case I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. If you think his not-talking is affecting him, then it might be time to suggest a therapist. He might be more comfortable talking to someone who’s more removed from his life, if he can get past the stigma of it.

    A stigma I don’t, personally, understand. EVERYONE should see a therapist at one time or another. Seriously.

    1. Great advice. And as he has seen a therapist before, if it got to that point, I don’t think he would rule it out. And I think he is somewhat private, but also just accustomed to working through stuff himself. He isn’t one to ‘burden’ anyone, even if I tell him I want to help and listen and talk. I just need to be patient and hopefully it’ll come.

  4. I have a boyfriend who is like that–he keeps things to himself until he just has to say something. If I ask him about his day and LISTEN (follow up questions or restating for clarification only), he usually responds and elaborates on the usual answer. When I push, he pushes back. He is getting more used to sharing his feelings and stresses, and it doesn’t take any prodding from me now, but we’ve been together three years.

    Some guys are just more introspective and keep things to themselves because they feel like they should be able to deal with it. If you frame it in a way that isn’t trying to solve anything or “help him”, they respond better, in my experience. Men love to be problem-solvers, but they hate for people to try to solve problems for them.

    1. Introspective – exactly what he is. And I think he also has a touch of that ‘problem-solver’ syndrome where he feels he’s a man and should be able to handle stuff himself. Well, we all need advice or an ear now and again, right? hopefully he’ll get there with me.

  5. I’m coming at this from a slightly different direction…I used to keep things in and S was really the one that got me to open up. My tips? Ask simple questions like “how was your day” and then really listen, and ask those questions consistently so that he knows that you really care and that you won’t run away from pain/stress/sadness. Like the poster above, you have to establish a pattern and continue to build on the trust that you have in your relationship.

    My other suggestion is to not push. When S is having a rough day, or when we’re trying to make a big decision, the more I push him to tell me or talk about it, the more he shuts down. I end up kind of ignoring him until he’s ready to talk about it, and because we’ve built a culture of trust and respect, he knows that he can come to me when he’s ready, and I know that he will. It’s hard to have patience sometimes, but it’s always worth it.

    1. thank you friend! I love the pattern idea, establishing that, and if he IS the type that would rather get through a decision on his own first, before talking about it, I think your approach could be a great recipe for that. And btw, I love how well you two communicate, especially now, it’s so awesome, refreshing and well-suited to you both! šŸ™‚

  6. I had a long term boyfriend for yrs who never opened up (in my opinion) and I once told him I felt like I didnt know him. He told me I knew him more than anyone and he told me more than anyone. Just “being” w me or knowing he “could talk” was enough for him. If this is who your guy is you arent going to change him overnight or maybe ever. “coaxing” things out of him he doesnt want to share might be seen as you trying to change him bc his way isnt good or right or healthy. I say, make him a cup of tea or coffee, give him a massage and always ask How was your day? Or So whats going on w the thesis? And let him share what and when hes ready. If theres ever a neccessary topic like problems w ur relationship, money, tragedy etc then force the issue. Otherwise, who is to say your way is the only or right way? People deal w things differently. Ex: I like to go on long run to work things out in my own head and I dont ever enjoy talking about work nor can I bc of attorney-client confidentiality. Fwiw, cheers, T.

    1. Thank you…I think you are right, my way isn’t necessarily the ‘right’ way or the way that will work for him. I need to adjust to that more. I think I just went into it thinking well, of course he’ll tell me everything, but I guess it will take some time, and that’s okay.

  7. Well, everyone has said very nearly the same thing. What it comes to is this: allow him to feel safe with you.

    Many times people don’t share because they’re afraid of how it will affect the other person. Will it upset you to hear him talk about his day of dealing with illness or death? Can you just listen and allow him a place to vent and, if he needs to, release emotion? Without trying to “fix it” or make it better?

    Over time, he will trust you on a deeper and deeper level. He may begin sharing things with you that he’s never shared before. Stay consistent in your support and allowing him his feelings. No matter what they are.

    1. I noticed that, some similar comments, but it’s right-on I think. And I think you are right on the illness/death thing, he worries more how I will take it, since he’s developed a pretty thick skin from it all. My favorite part of what you said: Stay consistent in your support and allowing him his feelings. No matter what they are. <–YES!

  8. I think asking a lot of questions is important with someone like this. My husband is very similar, and I don’t see it changing much over time. It’s not really a trust issue–I think it’s more that it simply doesn’t occur to him to share what’s weighing on his mind (whereas it doesn’t occur to me NOT to share).

    1. RIGHT! It isn’t natural for him to share, I think that’s definitely part of it. He’s even said that, pretty much. I just want him to know he doesn’t have to bear the burden all alone.

  9. I think you’re already doing the right thing but showing M that you WANT to be there for him and that you are all ears…when he’s ready and on his timetable. This is going to be very new to him – the sharing his personal feelings on certain topics with anyone, not just with you. So put those patience pants on becuase I bet it’ll take time…but he’ll get there. He loves you and probably loves you EVEN more (if that’s possible, heh) for wanting to be there to support him through everything under the sun. And that’s what makes a good relationship great.

    1. You’re right, too, sis. I know it’s huge for him to have someone in his life that uh, wants to hear about what’s going on at work and school and stuff. So hopefully in time, it’ll come.

  10. I asked this exact question to my counselor a little over a year ago about the man I was seeing at the time. That’s when she called me a fixer and told me I can only be a person worthy of being opened up to, the rest is up to him.

    1. Wow, very interesting. I guess I have a little ‘fixer” in me too. “I can only be a person worthy of being opened up to, the rest is up to him.” Exactly.

  11. Interesting – Jason is similar. He doesn’t just let it all out like I do. I can see the pros/cons in both ways though. But sometimes I think it’s important to share rather than holding it in, even if you’re not wanting to “bother” others with it. I think just trying to gentle nudge him to open up about his feelings perhaps. Asking more about how he’s feeling about things – like the upcoming thesis if he’s worried that sort of thing.

    1. There are pros and cons to both, I agree. I fall somewhere in the middle, I think. I don’t let it all hang out (that’s what the blog is for, right?!), but feel that it’s best to get it out when it’s something really important. Everyone is different, too, and I need to remember that.

  12. My advice. Just be there. When I went through my divorce I didn’t really talk to anyone in the beginning. In fact I didn’t tell anyone about the affair or separation, aside from my sister and kind of sister, until 6 weeks had passed. It was hard but I was ashamed. Even after I would tell people the story, I would answer their questions but I very rarely called someone and said that I needed to talk about X. I don’t like to be perceived as weak or needy so I kept a lot of it in or used the blog as the outlet. I tried therapy and found it to be utterly useless for me so I stopped going. My point is just be there. Let him know you will listen if/when he wants to talk. B can be like this too and then there are times when all this stuff just comes pouring out. But I know if I ask about it the next day/week he will clam out. You just have to let him do it on his own time.

    1. You’re right, I do. As for the divorce thing…I also think that it is harder for men to talk about it, especially when the divorce wasn’t their choice, as in M’s case. So, I don’t fault him for that either.

  13. Eric is not an emotional talker either. Maybe some guys are just like that? When I first realized it–soon after we got married–I was really worried. BUt I kind of just let things go naturally and realized that that’s just how he is. We talk about day to day things, and if I do something that annoys him, he’ll tell me, but most of the time–I don’t think he gets upset about little things like I do. If his co-worker bugs him, he’ll just say “Gah I hate working with this guy” and that’s it–whereas I will go on and on and on…seriously. I think women need to talk out their feelings to validate them, whereas some guys don’t because they don’t get bothered by stuff the way we do…does that make sense?
    i woudln’t worry too much about it unless it starts to harm your relationship.

    1. Yea, women are talkers by nature, much more than men. That’s for sure. And M has the patience of a saint and doesn’t let much rattle him anyway. So, when I know he has a lot on his mind, it is important, most likely, and not just random one-off annoyances, so I hope the gentle approach works to get him to come to me more.

  14. Ugh, I won’t lie. I kind of wanted to stick my head in the sand and ignore this post because this is what Dustin used to do. We could talk about anything but him and his stresses or problems. I tried my heart out and could never get him to open up.
    Wow, that was a shitty comment, sorry not helpful.

  15. It’s a hard one getting people to open up and express their feelings etc. I know that I’m quite private too and there are very few people who I’ll tell stuff to. I think with M, he probably feels very comfortable with you and will tell you things in his own time because he knows you are there for him and support him 100%. I think all you can do is be there to listen and maybe if you want him to talk more about his feelings, you can bring up a time you were stressed or something and then he may feel more comfortable to talk and open up. I think too that it’s in some peoples nature (including my own) not to open up and maybe that was how he was brought up during his childhood if that makes sense.

    1. Makes complete sense. I think also as he is almost 10 years younger than his only brother, that he never really even had that growing up, someone to confide in that was going through similar things. He and his brother are polar opposites and that has to make it hard to find an ‘ally” too.

  16. I think what people have to realize in general is that what works for them doesn’t work for everyone. There are other ways of relieving stress/burden that are not vocal, so the question is are you wanting him to open up for him, or do you really want him to open up for you?

    What if he opens up through different means?

    This is a very slippery slope. One false push in a direction that seems innocent to you could be devastating to him, and could cause a negative chain reaction.

    As a guy who has a similar approach to M, I would suggest you let him open up when he wants to and how he wants to. If you push him, he might take serious offense to it.

    1. I agree (wow, I agree with you for once, I know, it’s a shocker). I never want to push him in the opposite direction. That would be a giant fail. It is a tricky thing, and I think it will come in time.

  17. the man is like this, too. he has been all our lives. he just doesn’t share with anyone. hell, he once had a girlfriend who hated me because i knew his grandparents and she didn’t. but i’ve gotten through to him over the years by doing two things.

    1) i share with him. i pour my heart out to him constantly about the things that are bugging me in my life. believe it or not, he was my biggest confidante through the divorce, even as we were moving from friends to lovers.

    2) i make it clear that he can come to me whenever. i never ask; i just make myself available.

    over the years, when he has confided in me, it’s been kind of out of nowhere. he’ll just start talking, usually in the car or when we’re in bed. it’s weird; i’ve always taken it as a great honor to be the one he comes to when he wants to talk. it doesn’t happen often, but he knows that when he needs me, i’m there. i think that’s enough.

    1. Come to think of it – M does share out of the blue, but not when put on the spot. I bet that’s when stuff will start coming out…when it just does.

  18. I am not sure if this will helps because this is what works for me (I am SO like M)! I hardly ever talk about my feelings. Ever. I guess that’s why I blog? šŸ˜‰ I will tell you what works for me in terms of opening up to people I love. Alcohol. haha okay, no…but really, it really helps me when people I’m close to (usually my middle sis) asks me about things – not just “how was your day?” because I’ll tell you what my answer ALWAYS is. “Good! How was yours?” I always flip the question onto them. It really helps to ask more specific open ended questions…like if my sister asks me, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How are you and your roommate getting along?” That allows me to elaborate “with permission,” since I guess a large part of why I don’t open up to people in person is because I feel like I’m wasting their time/boring them. But the questions make me feel okay to open up….if that makes sense??

    1. Actually, that makes a lot of sense. I think I will try both – the generic/simple question way, and the slightly more specific way, and see what works šŸ™‚

  19. Wow! That’s a tough one. S and I were having a similar conversation the other evening. We talked about the importance of opening up and letting our needs, fears, stresses be known. He is all about communication.

    You might need to convey somehow that he can trust you with sharing (just conjecture here as I couldn’t know whence his hesitance derives). Another option is a trick psychologists use when getting kids to open up. They’ll do something neutral like play a board game and randomly ask questions increasingly probing. Can’t hurt to try.

    1. So interesting that you were having a similar conversation! We’ll have to meet up for real when I am in Cali again. Will be next week, but not really free (in all day/night meetings) but will be again mid-Feb šŸ™‚

  20. Yeah. We had a similar situation in the beginning. He wasn’t used to sharing. I just was really good at listening and giving him the comfort and confidence to share what he really needed to.

  21. I agree with a lot of other comments. He’ll get there. Just be yourself, keep opening up to him, and be a good listener. All things you already do! šŸ™‚

  22. Yeah, I’m not sure of the best approach not knowing him personally. I’d say, first and foremost, just make yourself available. As others said, maybe ask a question or two, but make sure it is subtle and open-ended. If he takes the bait, he’ll talk. If not, no pressure. I’d say lead by example. If you are open, he’ll open up slowly, hopefully.

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