Featured Image based on Clipart by Jan Alexander from Pixabay
In his book “The New Rules of Marriage,” Terrence Real identifies 5 Losing Strategies and 5 Winning Strategies in Relationships. You can read about them in my respective blogs. One of the losing strategies he names is “unbridled self-expression.” By that, he means venting and “telling your partner precisely and in no uncertain terms how horrible you feel” (T. Real) about their behaviour.
As an example, he describes a wife crying, yelling and venting at her husband for his affair. This rage is a perfectly understandable reaction if somebody finds out about an affair a week, a month or even a year ago. However, in the case of this couple, the betrayal was over eight years ago. The wife had taken her individual therapist’s advice that it is good for her to get it all out as permission to continue venting at her husband almost a decade after the affair. She was walking around with this inflamed wound, and the venting prevented the emotional injury from ever healing.
As a side note, ”Research shows that two partners who engage solely in individual therapy in order to deal with marital issues have an extremely high rate of divorce” (Terry Real, The New Rules of Marriage) because an individual therapist always only hears one side of the story and never sees the actual dynamics between the couple. Had her individual therapist known that she was still raging at her husband and keeping herself stuck in the pain of the betrayal, he would have clarified his statement.
The expression of emotions is also culturally very different. Do you remember Roberto Benigni’s reaction to winning the Oscar in 1999? That expression of joy was “over the top” for Anglo-Americans but witnessed with amusement because joy is generally considered a positive emotion while anger is not. The feelings inside might not be stronger, but their expression is because some cultures express their emotions louder and more openly. So any expression of emotions needs to be seen in the cultural context of a couple as well. I am not saying that culture can be used as an excuse for raging at your partner, especially in an interracial couple. “I am from…, and this is just how we are” does not fly if your partner feels unsafe by your expression of anger.
The idea that feelings are either expressed or suppressed goes back to Freud and ignores all the grey scales between keeping everything in and venting without a filter. If our aim is to be righteous and punish the other person, venting is the right strategy. However, this also distances and even estranges us from our partner, and it will not be likely that we will get a generous response from them. So, you can continue venting or move towards a solution. Venting on its own will not get you more of what you want. Your partner is not a mind reader, especially not if their nervous system is triggered into fight, flight or freeze through your venting. You need to make concrete requests of your partner and help them make the changes you are asking for by encouraging and praising their progress.
What about situations where one partner wants to vent about something that does not involve their spouse, for example, work? It is easier for a partner to hold the space and listen if their spouse is not venting about them but about other people. However, continuous and receptive venting takes a toll even in these situations. As the speaker who has been venting about work for months, you have to ask yourself how far you are choosing to blame others and remain the victim instead of taking action steps towards change. If your partner is not the right person to brainstorm how to make changes so you can be happier with your work life, reach out to a coach or therapist to get more clarity.
Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay
I heard three excellent rules for venting in a therapist circle last week. They apply whether you are venting to your partner about something that concerns them or about a third party. Couples Therapist Shane Birkel has put together the following three rules:
1. GET PERMISSION
Before starting to vent, get permission from your partner. Check-in if they have the emotional capacity to listen. You can ask them, “Is this a good time for me to share?”
2. SET A TIMER
Agree on how long you can vent without overloading the other person. You might, for example, agree to vent for 20 minutes. As the person listening, be as generous with the time set as possible. As the person venting, hold yourself to the agreement as closely as possible. Your partner is more willing to allow you to vent again if you are willing to reign yourself in because you are aware that ongoing complaining impacts them.
3. BE RESPECTFUL
If your venting concerns the other person, make sure you don’t beat them up. Avoid blame, criticism and judgements. Instead, do your best to express your feelings and experience with I-statements, owning your emotions.
Part of being respectful is showing gratitude to your partner for their willingness to listen. Express your appreciation for them giving you the space and time to vent and for their efforts to listen and acknowledge your feelings.