I put myself in timeout at our kitchen table. I suppose it was really a pre-timeout since I hadn’t yet melted down due to over-tiredness and a very real lack of chocolate cake. But after days of heavy work, parenting, and laundry loads, I needed a minute to process, well … I really needed more than a minute. So, here I sat — watching the wall.
Staring at the blank space in front of me felt comforting, because the lack of space inside me was not. A few moments into my wall meditation, my husband walked by and casually asked me, “What’s for dinner?” I continued staring, but now I glared at my partner. How had he not noticed my hopeless expression and all the wall looking? Earlier today he blinked weird, and I immediately knew he’d had a rough morning. How can he not read my emotional cues?
I know what you’re thinking. Really, I do. All right, technically, I’m not a “mind reader,” but I am fairly adept at reading my partner’s and my 9-year-old son’s emotional needs. I can anticipate their need for support, a hug, and even the random glass of water. My husband says this is a quality he values in our relationship, and I do, too. So, why when it’s his turn to support me does he fall flat, leaving me feeling misunderstood and super lonely?
Studies show that women are typically better at reading emotional cues than men. So, if you’re wondering why your partner doesn’t understand your eyebrow raise that reads, “I’m ready to leave the party,” or your fixed gaze that says, “I’ve had a terrible day,” a little something called evolution might have a lot to do with it. Sherry Kosinar, psychotherapist and LCSW, says, “There’s evidence to suggest that because women historically cared directly for families, we evolved to remain the emotional caregivers.” So, when it comes to knowing your family’s emotional needs, your superpower may have its roots in centuries-old caregiving survival.
Just as evolution can influence our behaviors, so can societal expectations. Marriage and family therapy associate with Creative Family Counseling, Tiffany Keith, says, culturally men have been raised to focus more on “manly” emotions like aggression and competitiveness. “Historically, that was their role: to go out and hunt, slay the dragon, or win the war,” Keith says. In more recent times, you’ll find male stereotypes promoting stoicism and anger still influencing and lurking in our society. This limiting focus leaves little room for learning how to recognize subtle emotional shifts in people.
Is it possible to deactivate centuries of evolution and societal conditioning so my husband can read my lip twitch that says, “I’m exhausted. Can you help?” In a household where I’m left to pick up all the emotional cues my family is putting down, I’m tired. I love being able to support everyone through whatever crisis they’re experiencing, but feeling supported by my partner would be nice. Keith says, “In a partnership when you’re not supported and affirmed, you will feel drained and emotionally exhausted.” In addition, if your partner isn’t validating you, developing ways to cope in order to deal with the stress can add to your emotional fatigue.
If your solo mind-reading act leaves you feeling isolated in your family, you’re not as alone as you might think. “Feeling unsupported can absolutely lead to feelings of loneliness and even frustration,” Kosinar says. Only a few generations ago, women had a true village of mind readers to call on for help and encouragement. “Mothers, grandmothers, aunts … we had family members that would walk in automatically,” Kosinar explains. Moms today are more isolated than ever, and a recent survey found that 90% of new mothers felt lonely after giving birth. With support systems not available like they once were, mamas are turning more to their partners. “Men are engaging in family life more than they ever have, but women don’t always feel that support,” Kosinar offers.
When it comes to my husband reading my emotional cues, there have been occasions he’s checked in because I’ve sighed heavily in his general direction or stared blankly just a little too long. When this happens, I feel seen and cared for in a way that connects me deeply to him. This thing is, though, reading my cues isn’t his strong suit. I need to find other ways to feel supported. Open communication is one way a partner can offer support, and Keith suggests talking with your spouse using a non-confrontational approach.
“Start your sentence with the words ‘I feel’ and insert whatever that feeling word is for you,” she says. This technique starts the conversational ball rolling, bringing awareness to the needs of the speaker instead of pointing out deficiencies in a partner.
Once you’ve begun your exchange, Kosinar says discovering each person’s “love language” can offer further support. The Five Love Languages (as identified by author Gary Chapman through his work as a marriage counselor) are ways you and your partner receive and express love. Knowing your love languages can help you communicate your needs effectively and show love in a way that’s appreciated. “Find out what your love language is, and then have a conversation with your partner,” advises Kosinar. “This can open your eyes to differences and begin the process of repair and support.”
Kosinar reminds us that being mindful and realistic in figuring out the expectations we have in our spouse can help us continue down our path of support. I’d love it if my husband was right there with me reading all the emotional cues, but the good news is, there are other ways to experience the emotional support I crave. All these solutions need to be applied and practiced — but once your rescue methods are in place, you lay the foundation to be more emotionally connected as a couple. And as Keith says, “We all want everyone to feel emotionally in tune.”
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