Dear Dr. Donna,
I am a 23-year-old guy. I have a girlfriend who I really love, but she did something recently that hurt my feelings. When I try to talk to her about it, she gets defensive and angry and then she tries to change the subject. When that doesn't work, she threatens to leave. I really wish she could hear my feelings. Do you have any suggestions?
Hurting in Heber
It is difficult to hear someone else's pain when we are in pain ourselves. I think first it will be useful for you to talk to someone you trust and get some empathy for the pain you are feeling. Then, you may be in a better position to talk to your girlfriend.
When someone is angry and defensive, that is usually a sign they are feeling some pain and fear about being judged or blamed. This pain and fear can cause us to fight or run, to protect ourselves. So, if she hears any judgment, she will probably continue to avoid the discussion.
Remember, it is not someone's actions that cause our feelings. The cause of our pain is our unmet needs. You might reassure her that you are not wanting to judge her and that all you'd like is for her to listen and to hear your feelings. You can express your feelings without judgment by 1) telling her what you observed (just the facts without mixing in any evaluations or generalizations); 2) explaining that your feelings of hurt have to do with your own unmet needs (i.e. for trust or consideration), and then 3) making a request for empathy by asking her if she'd be willing to tell you what she has just heard you say. If she is able to hear you without reacting defensively, then you will be more able to hear what she was feeling and needing when she acted as she did. When you can get to that place where you can hear each others' needs without blame or judgment, you will become like team players and be more open to finding strategies that will work better for both of you in the future.
-- Send your questions to: Ask Dr. Donna, P.O. Box 2204, Payson, AZ, 85547 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Steckal facilitates a Communication Practice Group on Fridays from 10:45 a.m. to noon. For more information, call (928) 474-4452.