Whenever my boyfriend is going through a hard time, he tends to close himself off and refuse any help, especially emotional support. How can I convince him to be more vulnerable with me so I can provide more support?
For starters, we should make one thing clear — we can’t convince anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. While this is an unfortunate truth in all relationships, there is merit to accepting the reality of a situation and moving forward with an effort to understand why he might be doing this so that you can work together.
There’s actually a term for the behavior similar to what your boyfriend may be exhibiting. It’s called stonewalling. Stonewalling, as described by relationship psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman, is a response to “flooding” of emotions. When stonewallers get overwhelmed, they are more likely to emotionally shut down or pull away from problems rather than move forward to meet them, even if offered support. The good news is that this means you’re not alone in your frustration, and your boyfriend is not alone in the way he copes with difficult emotions. It’s common in relationships, especially with men — the ratio of stonewalling occurrences is approximately 85 percent in men and 15 percent in women.
The important thing we can learn from the research on this topic is that the more we push someone who is either unwilling — or maybe just not quite ready — to talk, the more that person is likely to continue to pull away. Next time your boyfriend closes himself off, I suggest you acknowledge his need for space, but ask him to re-engage in the conversation in a little while when he is feeling calmer about the situation. By relieving the perceived pressure of talking now, your partner may be able to take time to self-regulate his nervous system before attempting a conversation later. Patience is key here. Making yourself available for support and discussion without setting an expectation of immediate vulnerability is important.
Additionally, even in those who readily communicate through hard times, true vulnerability can be scary. Vulnerability takes a sense of safety and security between partners, and one of the easiest ways to foster this is to offer vulnerability first. Next time your partner finds himself in a difficult situation, see if there might be anything personal you can offer to open the door to more honest, trusting conversations. Perhaps you relate to a struggle of his or know someone who has gone through something similar and can offer an intimate insight. One of the best ways to encourage vulnerability in a partner is by creating a safe environment and setting an example to be mirrored.
My parents don’t like my boyfriend, and I’m not sure what to do. How can I convince them that he’s a good partner, and do I tell him how they feel?
This is tough! When we feel strongly about someone, it’s only natural to want the other people we care about to feel the same way. When this isn’t the case, feelings of frustration and confusion are more than valid.
In my opinion, the most important thing to consider is why your parents might not like him. This can vary from genuine concerns that your parents may have about his behavior versus smaller qualms about things like his major or career goals. This advice varies based on your relationship with your parents, but based on the question it sounds like you do value their opinion. Perhaps, then, it is worth hearing them out and moving forward from there.
You could try initiating the conversation by stressing how important both your parents and your boyfriend are to you and that you’d really like to find a way to bridge that gap. You might begin by telling them that you want to hear their concerns but that you’d also like the opportunity to tell them about how great your boyfriend is in your eyes. The best way to change your parents’ minds is to make them feel heard. Your rebuttal of their criticisms won’t be received as fair if you aren’t willing to understand where they’re coming from.
Unless your case is one of that lucky love at first sight, it likely took time for you to get to know your partner and develop feelings. It might take time for your parents to really get to know him too. Maybe he’s shy, and over time he’ll open up and your parents will see what you see in him. My point is, barring large relationship red flags, your parents’ opinion isn’t final and it’s okay not to see eye to eye right now.
Regarding the second question, I would advise you not to tell him. Nothing will make it harder for him to make a good impression in the future than knowing he has failed to do so in the past. You want him to feel comfortable around you and your family so that his natural admirable qualities have the opportunity to shine. Nerves over the way he is perceived may only make the situation worse.
In the end, if worst comes to worst, take heart in the fact that you’re dating him, not your parents. Parents often have unfortunately rigid ideas about the futures they envision for their children, and he may not be the Prince Charming they had in mind, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with him being the one you want. If the relationship is happy and healthy, let it flourish. All you can do is hope that your parents come around to its beauty once it blooms.
Heart to Heart is a regular column written by Life columnists Katherine Schwartz and Jenna Onetto. To submit a question, fill out this form and our columnists will do their best to address it in an upcoming issue.