Follow-up on expressing vulnerable feelings to a loved one

Yesterday I commented on a series of studies indicating that expressing insecurities to a romantic partner might lead to perpetuating them (because of our impressions of our vulnerabilities, what we think they think of us, and our suspicions that they don’t really care). Today, I want to list the major findings of the 5 studies. See what you think of these interpretations of the data:

  • “Study 1 demonstrated that people believe expressions of regard toward interpersonally insecure and vulnerable others are relatively inauthentic.” (p. 436).
  • “Studies 2A, 2B, and 4 suggest that, when people believe they have expressed vulnerabilities to a romantic partner or friend, they believe they are viewed especially vulnerable, which in turn predicts their suspicion regarding the authenticity of the other’s expressions of positive regard and acceptance.” (ibid)
  • “Study 4 suggests that this process can operate independently of the partner’s appraisals of vulnerability and reported authenticity.” (ibid)
  • Study 5 seems to show that when subjects appraise themselves as vulnerable they doubt a new acquaintance’s expressions of pleasure (even though the new person didn’t see the subject as vulnerable.
  • Studies 3 and 4 seem to indicate that when you have doubts about your partner’s authentic expression of love, you then perceive acts of caring in a more pessimistic manner. “In particular, authenticity doubts may result in a downward estimation of the partner’s true regard and acceptance, as expressions of positive are presumed to be exaggerated and clandestine rejection can be inferred from the partner’s presumed cautious orientation.” (ibid)

SO, do you think those who express vulnerabilities then are only placated and thus receive inauthentic expressions of kindness? Have you experienced yourself devaluing objective kind acts by re-interpreting them through a lens of pessimism? “He’s only doing that because he wants me to let him have his way.” Now, that could be true, but if you find yourself regularly dismissing acts of caring then you might want to explore where your assumptions are coming from.

What should we do? We should express our insecurities and then seek to listen to our loved one with the best possible interpretation and seek to be specific and concrete in pointing out how their actions/attitudes impact us. If we are the one listening to a loved one tell us that they are not feeling secure, then we ought to express warmth, concern, etc. Put off the defensiveness and put yourself in their shoes. If you were worried, you would want another to comfort and care for you–not call you an idiot for thinking that way.


Filed under counseling science, Psychology, Relationships

8 responses to “Follow-up on expressing vulnerable feelings to a loved one

  1. The Rev. Andrew Nussey

    It seems to me that, like the process of disidentification, it would be valuable to cognitively rehearse untruths perpetuated by our biased assumptions towards pessimism, and then to reaffirm our partner’s action from a position of good will. In this way we can begin to replace the negative assumptions with positive inferences.

  2. Winston Smith

    I’m only responding to your summaries, Phil, and haven’t read the studies, but I’m wondering how these results square with the emotionally focused marital therapy material which reports solid results. It seems to me that the EFMT is entirely founded on the premise that vulnerability and acceptance is central to “attachment”.

    • Yes, at first glance it raises that disconnect with EFT. However, I suspect that the problem isn’t the registering of the vulnerabilities to the loved one but the prior and continuing confirmation bias that the other can’t love them. If EFT is done right, the therapist should be able to coach both parties to express and receiving love expressions.

  3. Lou Buses

    We all interpret other’s reactions to what we say in view of our own self-estimation. If I am “not worthy of love”, for what ever reason, expressions of affection from anyone are suspect and downgraded. This is amplified, if we are romantically involved. With one couple I counseled, the wife was sexually abused as a child, soon after she married, she discovered her husband was involved in pornography; the same thing that had motivated her first abuser. The betrayal for her was devastating. [Talk about a bias toward insecurity and pessimism!] Although they had both expressed “sorrow” to each other for their actions (betrayal on his part and devastating criticism on her part) there had never been true forgiveness. Things had progressed after eleven years of marriage (and four psychologists) to constant criticism on her side and passive-aggressive withdrawal on his side. The effort to express affection had been abandoned to the point where they had not been intimate for over two years.
    In God’s grace they have been able to find real forgiveness, gain some understanding how God was working in the circumstance to draw them to Himself and begin the lifelong task of building a marriage that reflects the relationship of Christ and His church (Ep 5.32). One of the hurdles they had to overcome was accepting complements and acts of affection in a 1Co 13 manner, belief without questioning motivation; that is without analyzing and running such activities through the pessimistic grid. Praise God for His mercy and miraculous work.

  4. Dana

    This post evokes another hmmmm from me, and, again, I’m thankful for how it helps my own processing. Interestingly, the study results were a bit triggery for me. Once I walked through that, though, it caused me to really ask what it has been, in recent years and multiple healing relationships (chief of which is the marriage, but also significant friendships with other women), that has made a difference for me with my insecurities.

    The biggest thing I came up with was that no one in any of the most healing relationships tried to fix my insecurities. It’s not that they never assured or reassured me. Just that they didn’t make my getting less insecure an agenda item, or something I needed to take care of in order to have healthy relationships. They just kept being safe people and loving me and accepting me. Me included insecurities, but the insecurities were not the sum total of me. They were more like a broken arm maybe. Something that meant I needed a bit more sensitivity and tenderness in certain areas, but which did not make me a weak or crippled person in my entirety. I was loved, not actually in spite of my insecurities, but, I don’t know, just as me. Package deal. Insecurities were a part of that package (as opposed to an unacceptable tumor that had to be cut off in order to love me fully). But they weren’t the package or even the most noticeable part of the package deal me.

    I think something odd can happen when a counselor or partner tries to “fix” or help or heal something like insecurity. That thing becomes a much bigger deal and issue than it needs to be, and suddenly, way too much hinges on whether or not my insecurities (or a specific insecurity) is fixed. I’m a big fan of Frankl’s logotherapy philosophy. So I feel insecure? Okay. Feel as insecure as I need to in this moment, instead of fighting to keep myself from feeling insecure. And when I let myself reach the bottom of it, I find for myself that I’m not only insecure (i.e that I am more than JUST insecure), my insecurities have boundaries/limits of their own (they are not as all-consuming as I imagined), they aren’t going to kill me or destroy my relationship, etc.

    Obviously my insecurities have relevance and impact on those I’m in relationship with. But they aren’t a demand for the other person to have to fix them or assure me till I don’t feel any more insecurities.

    If my new husband had had to assure me until I didn’t feel insecure about his love when we were dating (i.e. if my insecurity for him were a demand or challenge for him to prove that I WAS secure), I do believe the relationship would have been doomed early on.

    But he was able to see that my insecurity was not making a statement about him. It was a symptom of my emotional “broken arm”. He helped me splint it up a little bit, in the sense of giving me some reassurances, but the weight of making me secure/fixing my insecurities was not something he could carry or had to. We both accepted that I was insecure, that I would need space and time to see for myself if this relationship was secure, that that would cause some degree of pain and confusion for both of us, and that we were okay walking through that a step at a time.

    But even the walking wasn’t with an agenda of getting me less insecure. It was walking and waiting and watching and growing. Insecurities were part of that, but not the focus.

    To know that I can feel insecure and that it is not a threat to the other person, that I can be loved and give love, even with doubts and insecurities–I don’t know. It’s such a great freedom. It’s something that has helped me, not only in my relationships with other people, but also with God. Maybe it happened in reverse. I think it made more sense to me that it was okay that I felt insecure sometimes with God and that it didn’t change anything. And then, I realized it was okay with people too. There are real reasons why I’m insecure. I’ve got real baggage. And I try to work on it, a bit at a time. But, in the end, it’s great to be loved, baggage and all, even while I’m working on the baggage, and without having “successful baggage eradication” be a contingent on which being love is based.

    That kind of strays from the main point of the post. I do appreciate the thinking these posts have stirred in me, even if it takes me a lot of words to sort it all out!

    • D. Stevenson

      And Dana, your words give me plenty to ponder as I counsel. How do I help my client overcome her “insecurities” – that are the reason for her coming, and yet communicate that she is much, much more than her weakness.

  5. Dana

    D. Stevenson, Exactly! I wish I could have said it in as few words :-). I’ve experienced quite a bit of traumatic counseling, and I sort of follow this blog as a re-exposure to counseling thoughts, where I’m safe around counselors. A little weird, maybe, but I think it helps and I do learn things along the way and it helps me to think about things, too. I do have a great counselor, but he’s so non-counsely-ish, it doesn’t help desensitize my triggerishness around counselors who think and sound like counselors. I’m enjoying finding Phil and others, albeit from a long distance, to be non-threatening people whose job is counseling.

    It really impacted me deeply these last two comments to feel like I’d been interacted with as a real person who had something valid (and not just dysfunctional!) to contribute to the discussion. Thanks to you both (D. Stevenson and Phil).

  6. Jackie

    Phil, Your final paragraph is the key. So much relational healing could take place if we would remember to … “express our insecurities and then seek to listen to our loved one with the best possible interpretation and seek to be specific and concrete in pointing out how their actions/attitudes impact us. If we are the one listening to a loved one tell us that they are not feeling secure, then we ought to express warmth, concern, etc. Put off the defensiveness and put yourself in their shoes. If you were worried, you would want another to comfort and care for you–not call you an idiot for thinking that way.” Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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