Why Trying To ‘Control’ Your Partner Into ‘Opening Up’ Doesn’t Work
An active, conspicuous pressure to open up, might lead people to shut others out and withdraw deeper into their shells.
Communication is an important part of any relationship — romantic or otherwise. Naturally, then, woes like, “How do I get my husband to open up? It seems like I have been doing all the talking and he barely shares any emotional stuff,” abound on the internet. However, as frustrating as it might be to deal with a partner who simply doesn’t want to open up to you, trying to manipulate — and, therefore, control — them into doing so isn’t a good idea. Besides the fact that it’s probably emotionally abusive to do so, it can also be counterproductive, according to a new study.
How, then, does one get their partner to open up? The simple answer is that one can’t do anything other than be patient. The closeness and intimacy that a heart-to-heart conversation brings forth can’t be forced. What one can do, however, is let their partners know they’re going to be there for them whenever they do decide to open up. That’s what the study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, suggests.
According to the researchers involved in it, saying something like, “I am available, should you want to share,” is way better than saying, “Partners who love each other must tell each other everything.” The former was termed an “autonomy-supporting” approach; the latter, a “controlling” strategy.
“Controlling strategies… are perceived as disrespectful, dominating, threatening, invalidating, guilt-inducing, deceiving, or rejecting,” Arash Emamzadeh, who is educated in psychology and genetics from the University of British Columbia and wasn’t involved in the present study, wrote in Psychology Today. “In fact, being controlling may create a vicious circle. This occurs when a partner seeking intimacy and closeness does not receive it, so resorts to more controlling strategies, which then cause the other partner to withdraw even more,” Emamzadeh added.
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The study itself was conducted in two parts — both confirmed the futility of controlling strategies and the utility of autonomy-supporting ones in helping one’s partners open up to them. The first part of the study involved close to 300 participants — 85% female and 94% heterosexual — who had been in relationships for three-to-four years, on average. They were quizzed on which of the strategies they would prefer their partners to use. As expected, they found the autonomy-supporting approach both more acceptable and effective in getting them to open up to them.
The second part of the study involved 78 couples — 92% heterosexual — who had been dating anywhere from a month to 15 years. Describing the experiment, the researchers noted in the study, “[W]e coded romantic partners’ use of autonomy-supportive and controlling strategies in recorded conversations, then assessed the acceptability and effectiveness of strategies… [The results] demonstrated that eliciting disclosure using autonomy-supportive strategies rather than controlling strategies resulted in greater and more personal content in partner disclosure.” In other words, it made people more comfortable when it came to opening up about things deeply personal to them.
This suggests that an active, conspicuous pressure to open up might lead people to shut others out and withdraw deeper into their shells.
It’s not just in relationships, though, that autonomy-supportive approaches work better. Yet another study published last month, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that messages about social distancing fared better when they were autonomy-supportive than when they were controlling. Involving more than 25,000 participants from almost 90 countries around the world, the study found that the latter approach relied on motivating people through “shame, guilt, and fear of social consequences,” resulting in greater defiance. Evidently, no matter what we want people to do, it seems advisable to inspire them to do it of their own accord than pressure them into it.
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According to Emamzadeh what makes autonomy-supportive strategies work is the fact that they “[encourage] exchange of information, not making evaluations or assigning blame,” and work towards “acknowledging feelings and perceptions; showing empathy, concern, and interest; [are] flexible regarding the content or timing of disclosure, and promot[e] initiative and active participation in decision-making.” Emamzadeh, in fact, believes that “such [a] strateg[y is] particularly helpful for those who are anxious or avoidant, enabling them to turn to their romantic partner for support when experiencing stress.”
Perhaps, what might also help is not just “saying the right thing,” but also embedding that into one’s actions. It is, after all, not going to encourage someone to open up to their partners again if an admission by them — while elicited through an autonomy-supportive approach — is met with words berating them for their decision to have opened up slowly, or invalidating the fact that it, perhaps, takes them longer to trust others.
At the end of the day, while an autonomy-supportive approach seems to certainly trump a controlling strategy, it’s important to remember that different people will, nonetheless, take different amounts of time to truly feel comfortable enough with a person — even if the person, in question, is their partner. The kind of disclosure, too, may impact how long it takes them to open up. So, the most important virtue, here — besides, supportiveness, of course — is still patience.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.