Jan. 26, 2005 at 12:11 PM ET
"I don't know what he's thinking because he never tells me what is going on."
Sound familiar? In a recent poll, 42 percent of iVillage visitors say that they have a hard time getting their partner to share his feelings. When that happens, she feels shut out and he feels misunderstood. But in my years as a therapist and author, I've discovered something that many women don't realize. Men want to talk. Under the right conditions, they'll talk all night long. Most men desperately need to unburden themselves. So what's the secret to getting your guy to share? Read on—and get ready to receive an earful.
Secret 1: Real Men Fear Rejection—Really!
It's true. Most men feel that women are very critical of them, and they worry that if they do open up, someone's going to laugh at them, leaving them rejected and humiliated. It's important for women to realize that a man's ego and sense of identity are generally more fragile than hers and more easily threatened. That is especially so when he's in an intimate relationship: He craves acknowledgment, feedback and knowing that he's pleased you. So if a man feels that you are going to judge him, or look at him differently as a result of what he says, you can be sure that he won't talk.
Not judging your partner means allowing him to say what is on his mind, and simply being willing to hear it. This does not mean that you don't have an opinion or that you can't offer it at some point. In order for him open up to you, he has to feel truly accepted for who he is, not for who you may want him to be. Be patient with him. If you respond to his thoughts by immediately offering your point of view with something like "Well, that's wrong. I don't agree" or, "Where did you get a crazy idea like that?" any man is going to clam right up. They're afraid if they say something too personal, it may not fit into the image you have of them, or the image they force themselves to project.
A man is many different things at different points in his life—even at different points in the week or day. Don't be afraid to allow him to show you all different parts of himself. If you can let go of your expectations and really just try to find out who he is, he will immediately sense it, feel greatly at ease and enjoy talking to you.
Secret 2: Reveal Yourself as Well
There must be mutual disclosure between partners. Everybody has problems, fears and skeletons in the closet. Many guys think, "If I share this, she'll leave me." You have to show that this is not the case by revealing something about yourself that shows you have as much trust in him as he has in you.
When he starts to open up, listen to what he is saying, then take a step beyond and offer something positive in return. After he tells you something personal, say something like, "Well, that's not so bad. I've done worse." Or, "I really admire this about what happened" and pick something in the story you really do admire. (Don't make this up, though. It will fall flat and turn into manipulation. People always know when they are being manipulated on some level and it never works out.) Let him know you're on his team, that he is not alone with his experience.
Make sure as you give him feedback, that you take his side. Many women listen to the stories that men tell only to respond by telling him how he's been looking at it wrong. They take the side of someone else. In a story about work, for example, it's the coworker he's been having a hard time with. It is important, however, that you look at the situation from his point of view. This is not a time to teach or train him, it's a time to "make friends." When two people are making friends, they share their common experiences mutually and, because of that, experience closeness and comfort. Here, you're creating rapport, the feeling that the two of you occupy the same planet and live in a similar world.
It's amazing how many men feel tremendously alone. Not only have they been trained for silence, taught that it is unmanly to express what they are going through, they usually don't get feedback from the guys in their world. Your honest and positive feedback is vital. If you bond in this way, your partner will feel there is someone there who understands them and open up even more.
Secret 3: Let Go of the Past
Have you ever had a "discussion" with your partner that ended up turning into a litany of past grievances, the things he did wrong, the ways he hurt you, and what he owes you now? It happens at some point in nearly every relationship, but the fact remains; men cringe when they feel this coming.
When a man fears that his words will later be distorted, misunderstood, told to others or thrown back at him, it is impossible for him to open up. And the only way to move beyond this communication trap is to realize that whatever happened in the past, whatever he did or said, you were involved as well. All relationships are dances. No one is entirely good and no one entirely bad. In fact, rather than seeing anyone as good or bad, it is more useful to notice the roles being played in the relationship and the ways in which all of us become stuck in patterns that we don't know how to get out of.
For example, some women love playing the victim or martyr. They need the blame of the relationship in order to validate their own feelings and feel powerful over their partner. In fact, they may hold a man to them in this way for a while. But it's a sure sign that the communication has completely closed down and the relationship is on the rocks.
If you want to avoid or change this sorry state of affairs and help him speak to you openly, try this. Take responsibility for your part in the situation and see the ways in which you might have contributed to what happened. This does not mean blaming yourself, either. Just to look at the situation with a large eye. Focus on all the things he did "right," not "wrong." If you need more direction here, take out your journal and make lists of what you've received from the relationship and what you've given in return. Notice times when you were also less than perfect, and notice the ways in which both of you have grown and changed.
The ability to forgive may be just as simple as realizing that what was true a year ago about him (and about yourself as well) may not be true now. Stay focused in the present. True communication requires the ability to remain in the present and to let the past be over when it's done.
Secret 4: Become a Solid—and Secure—Listener
Is it even possible to have honest relationships? The assumption is that everybody's going to be honest. The truth is, few people are. And the main reason that people are dishonest is that the consequences are too big. Many men feel that women want and need to be lied to because they can't take the honest truth. Some of my clients have said that they fear telling their partner what is really going on in their lives, or how they truly feel because it will upset her. In fact, many women use their emotions to control men—and control the relationship. They demand certain responses from men, and feel devastated if they don't get them. Then they're surprised when he shuts down and doesn't talk.
Unfortunately, many women also have strong images of how a man is "supposed" to feel, and think. That kind of fantasy makes the truth devastating, so they let the man know in many subtle ways that they do not want it. Sound familiar? We're all guilty of this from time to time, but being willing to listen to what he has to say is the beginning of a truly mature relationship. It gives the man the feeling that he has a solid partner who will be there with him through thick and thin.
If you're ready to break out of this unrealistic rut, it's time to ask yourself three things. How much of the truth you can tolerate? How much do you really want? Do you want your man to be a fantasy figure for you, or are you willing to allow him to become real? These are huge questions. Perhaps you cannot take all of the truth at once right now, but you can certainly build up your tolerance muscles and move in that direction.
Oddly enough, we all think that fantasy makes us feel wonderful, but in fact, the more reality we can take, the stronger we grow. The ability to accept honesty from others increases as we realize that true security comes not from the approval of others but from being true to ourselves.
Secret 5: Be True to Yourself—Be Aware
It's an old question but a good one. How can we be true to another if we aren't true to ourselves? The best way to help a man open up is simply to be open yourself, be natural, be real and exude an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance. Those who we encounter in life are mirrors of different parts of ourselves and we attract certain people who each help us love another part of ourselves.
This is why it's important to apply the five topics covered here not only to the men in our lives but also to ourselves. For example, are you able to let go of judging yourself? Do you dismiss past grievances about the things you've done wrong? Or are you always dwelling on mistakes you've made, ways in which you've fallen short? When you treat yourself this way, it is only natural to do the same thing to your partner. If when young you were always scolded or made to feel inadequate in some way, you are likely to act the same way toward your man.
Awareness is crucial here. If you want to create a more open dynamic between your partner and yourself, take a strong inventory of the way you treat and regard yourself and the way you were treated by the significant others of your past. If you were hurt, this is your chance to make a decision to not live your life on automatic-pilot-of-the-past anymore. Turn it around. Decide to be kind and accepting, both of yourself and to the one you're with.
Sometimes we give in to another in the expectation of receiving the same in return. When that doesn't happen, silent fury starts to build. That is behaving with an agenda, giving mixed messages and not being true to another or yourself. In order to give of yourself truly, you have to realize that you "get" as much out of giving as out of receiving. When you give the other unconditional respect and regard, you are giving that to yourself as well. You are behaving in the best way possible, and the fine effects always reverberate back. When you treat others in a way you respect, you are building a sense of value and worth. If your partner doesn't reciprocate, you won't have to feel like it's your failing or loss. Instead you will easily move on to someone who is more like you.
The bottom line: Be true to yourself and you will find that it is contagious. The men (and women) you are with will start to behave the same way. They will communicate openly and naturally, not with a fixed agenda, not to manipulate or control. If they don't behave this way, they will naturally move out of your life—to a place that is more appropriate for them.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.