I was having friends over for dinner the other day and my husband “surprised” me with cleaning the kitchen. As he left to go run a few errands, he said “I already cleaned the kitchen so you don’t have to. Enjoy your time relaxing!” After he left, I saw the crumbs under, on and all around the table. He forgot about the table. I cleaned it, and a few other things he overlooked. As I did, I thought about my desire to tell him. To tell him that I didn’t get to relax, but rather had to clean too. I also thought about not telling him. I didn’t want him to think I was not appreciative, but rather critical of his efforts. As I thought about these things, I realized just how strong my desire was to tell him. And I wondered why. Why did I have to tell him? Why couldn’t I just let it be and let him feel good about his efforts to help me?
As I thought about this, it hit me. I didn’t need to tell him to put down his efforts. I didn’t need to tell him to get a huge display of gratitude for mine. My desire to tell him was due to my powerful need to be seen by him. It’s the same desire he has when he spends hours on the yard and wants to know if I noticed it as I pulled into the driveway. We don’t need a big fanfare parade or a grand gesture of gratitude. We just need to be seen. By our partner. The person who matters most in our life.
We all have the need for our partners to see that we are hurting, stressed, anxious, sad, over-worked, under-appreciated, etc. The problem is that often we bring up this need as a complaint or accusation such as “you don’t even care how I feel!” Another popular option is to avoid bringing up emotional things altogether. We walk on eggshells around our partner because we don’t want to poke the bear, stir the pot, bring up painful stuff that will erupt into a huge display of emotion. And when we do all of this avoiding, we communicate one very painful thing: “I don’t see you.” I don’t see your pain, your efforts, you hardships, your stressors.
What does it mean to be seen?
Being seen is not the same as complimenting, expressing gratitude, helping our partners “fix” their problems. It’s not the same as buying gifts, having big heart-to-heart conversations, delving into the depths of pain and despair. It’s actually really simple and it can have far reaching effects. It can calm anxieties, comfort sadness, soothe hurts and prevent arguments.
It’s when your partner sees that you are having a bad day. They see that you are hurting about this thing that happened yesterday, last week, last month. They see that you are still grieving the loss of a loved one, or job, or relationship of a friend. They see that you are working tirelessly and are depleted, overwhelmed and exhausted. They see that you are struggling with finding answers to a frustrating and overwhelming problem: a problem that they want to fix immediately so you will quit complaining about it.
IF YOUR PARTNER FEELS SEEN BY YOU, THEY WILL FEEL MORE CONNECTED TO YOU AND FEEL MORE SATISFIED WITH YOUR RELATIONSHIP. And guess what happens when these two things occur? They feel less depressed, less anxious, less lonely, less stuck, more hopeful, more empowered, more positive. And the list goes on and on.
What is this magical tool?
The best part of the powerful impact of feeling seen by our partners is that it’s not rocket science. It doesn’t require a PhD in psychology or a level of emotional empathy displayed by Mother Teresa. It’s something so simple, that even the most emotionally shut down partner, the one who feels overwhelming dread when their partner brings up an issue, can do.
It’s not saying, “how are you feeling today about the fact that I yelled at you last night?” It’s not saying “tell me all about your work strifes (that I actually don’t really feel like hearing about again and again)”. It’s not saying “thanks for cleaning the dishes or taking out the trash or doing the laundry or cooking the dinner or bathing the kids.” It’s not saying, “thanks for going to work day after day to provide for our family and working overtime to afford the extra vacation this year”. It’s not that you shouldn’t express gratitude; by all means, please do. This is different. It’s simple. It doesn’t invite a huge conversation or fight. And the reason it doesn’t is because it has no opinions, judgments, undertones, implications or selfish motivations attached. Responding or approaching your partner without these things, is POWERFUL!
Letting your partner know you see them can occur in a million ways. Here are some examples:
- I see that you are hurting from our argument.
- I see that this hurt your feelings.
- I see that this is a really stressful week for you.
- I see that the kids have been really hard today and you probably haven’t sat down once.
- I see that you ran around like a crazy person today to take care of things.
- I see that you traveled so much for work this week. Planes, trains and automobiles.
- I see that you were with the kids all week and did it all while I was away for work.
- I see that you aren’t feeling great.
- I see that you are exhausted.
- I see that you are unsure, uncertain, fearful of what moves to make and what decision to make.
- I see that this is really hard for you to let go of – this thing that happened had a big impact on you.
What to do?
Now, don’t go around saying this 25 times tomorrow to the point where your spouse accuses you of being a stalker. Just review the list above and pick two or three. Then, in the next 24 hours, pick a time here or there to say it. Start with something small, something that you think could be well-received. After some practice, you can use it in its most effective way, in the middle an argument. Instead of saying, “that’s not what happened”, or “that’s not what I meant”, or “that’s not how it went!!” Say “I see that is upsetting to you” or “I see that this is causing a big rift between us.” And then, you can see…see if this diffuses the situation, softens your partner, allows for a more effective conversation. Good Luck!
- We all desperately want to be “seen” by our partners.
- When we fail to “see” our partners, they often interpret this that we don’t care about them or their feelings.
- Feeling like our partner doesn’t see us is incredibly painful.
- When your partner feels seen by you, conflicts can be prevented or resolved quicker.