Stop those tears
December 30, 2010 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me be able to talk about relationship issues without unproductively bursting into tears.

I'm in a long term, long distance relationship with someone I love. But like with all relationships, things will come up that we need to talk about. This can range from little things ("I'm frustrated because I feel like you're distracted on the phone") to maybe larger issues about the future, finding how to spend enough time together, etc. My problem: whenever we start talking about anything relationship-problem-related, I start crying. Not out-and-out bawling, just tearing up. It's not productive, because it makes what should be little conversations into these big ordeals, and it's hard for my boyfriend, because how do you have a normal conversation when your girlfriend's next to you with tears rolling down her face?

The thing is, with some exceptions, I'm almost never nearly as upset as I look. The crying just sort of seems to happen automatically. It's gotten to the point where it's easier for us to have serious conversations on the phone, because then he can't see the tears and we can actually communicate and figure out what the root of problems are.

Does anyone else have this problem? And how have you dealt with it? I have nothing against crying in general, especially if I'm legitimately really upset, but it's not helpful when I'm actually trying to talk to him, and seems misleading, since I'm almost never as upset as I look. So how can I stop crying when I don't want to?

Anonymous because he sometimes reads metafilter. I can clarify stuff if necessary.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is common; I remember being comforted by earlier askmes that confirmed as much. One thing that works for me is to write as much as possible down beforehand, usually in a journal (online or off). That allows me to get my head on straight and feel a lot of the emotional stuff and cry... and then I can either show him what I wrote and/or we can discuss it. It's still not Easy, but it's more doable.

But know that you're not at all alone in crying about this stuff, and that your phone solution, if it works for you, is a fine one.
posted by ldthomps at 2:10 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think lots of people have this problem.

I don't think you can just stop crying when you don't want to cry. What you can do is explain (during a neutral time) how it's involuntary, how you don't do it to control or mislead, it doesn't mean you think the topic at hand is a big ordeal, and often you're not even as upset as you seem. You can just tell him these same things you told us.

What you then ask him to do is simple: when it happens, wait with you, patiently, for it to pass, maybe with a hug or whatever helps, if you like - and then you can continue the conversation.

Or, if talking on the phone or in email or whatever works better for working out problems, just do that -- it's OK.
posted by fritley at 2:12 PM on December 30, 2010

Have these discussions on MSN. Works for me.
posted by emilyw at 2:16 PM on December 30, 2010

I have the same problem! It really embarrasses and irritates me. But ultimately, I'm just lucky my partner is capable of believing me when I gulp through the thickness in my throat that I'm really, really not as upset as I blatantly look and it's just another one of those stupid body things.

Some people always need lube for sex and it doesn't mean they're not turned on enough, some people always need tissues for relationship talks and it doesn't mean we're totally heartbroken and distraught.
posted by Eshkol at 2:22 PM on December 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

It takes practice, and the fact that you're able to work past it and communicate (even if only on the phone right now) is a good sign.

It's kind of a shock to see other people crying - even if you're a crier yourself - and it's easy to interpret it as a dire situation. If you find yourself welling up, tell your boyfriend "Please don't be alarmed; this is an automatic response and I am in fact okay. I need ten seconds to take a deep breath (or whatever) and then let's continue." Explain to him that they're involuntary-reaction tears rather than end-of-the-world tears, and that you don't want to scare or worry him. If he understands that, whenever it happens again give him some sort of signal that you're okay and need to take a quick pause.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:29 PM on December 30, 2010

Explaining that the tears are involuntary is important but it doesn't solve the problem. Because a lot of people, including myself, have an extremely visceral and instinctive reaction to seeing someone they care about in tears. So the reaction to crying is also involuntary and likely an even stronger instinct.

It really is pretty much impossible for many folks to have an important conversation with someone who is crying. Emotional validation, sure, but an actual conversation? No way.
posted by Justinian at 2:37 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have exactly the same problem. It really helps me to write an email as a starting point to make sure I get my thoughts out before I start crying. My husband also understands my problems with communicating and he is patient with me.
posted by elvissa at 3:23 PM on December 30, 2010

Justinian, that is not true, or else parents would be rendered helpless in the face of toddler cried. There may be some involuntary aspects, but the shut-down mode that many adults respond with when confronted with a crying adult is at least partly learned--or, more probably, do not have appropriate management skills for dealing with emotional responses that differ from one's own. It takes practice. Tears are often a primary physiological effect of emotion in a way that 'being rendered unable to cope with a person expressing distress' is not.

When I feel anxiety to the point of an inability to cope with an interpersonal situation that I find distressing, it is not on the other person not to feel anger or express distress as long as s/he is expressing emotions respectfully. It would be unfair for me to make that a requirement for 'adult' discussion, just as it would be unfair for another person to only engage with me if I could guarantee my heartbeat stays under a certain rate. Now, in order to learn that tolerance, I may need exposure and practice and patience and timeouts and compassion from others while I practice interacting with distressed individuals, and tolerating the internal state I experience (which extinguishes). But when I describe my distress in terms of overwhelming anxiety, you see how it is not the same type of involuntary response as crying often is.

I've gone through exposure therapy, and as an involuntary crier myself, I've found there's a difference between crying or welling up and the 'OH GOD PERSON IN DISTRESS I CAN'T HANDLE IT' feelings. I had to practice for a long time to deal with other people expressing things in ways that were distressing (though not abusive) for me to witness.

It is not always easy, but that 'visceral sense' of distress and being overwhelmed by someone else merely feeling an emotion and showing it is manageable. It's often that it's not expected of people who feel that way w/r/t crying.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:44 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

OP, I come from a family where women were not allowed to cry or express anger because it was 'too distressing for other people to see women cry,' and therefore it was an 'irrational' response. That is incredibly motivating to make one into a non-crier. I am still a crier. I've found that accepting it and being okay with myself and realizing that it is one facet of a physical response to emotion has done more to limit the crying itself, as well as to provide appropriate social modelling for people who are ooverwhelmed by distress at the sight. When you tell them it is involuntary, and are self-aware and even 'talk them through' what's happening and how you are coping, you are providing feedback and information they can incorporate into their reactions.

Obviously, this is not useful during extremely serious or frustrating discussions, but if you well up during smaller-scale discussions and talk through it and demonstrate independent (i.e., without relying on the person who is upset by crying) self-soothing behaviors--such as getting kleenex or a glass of water and simply treating it as a part of yourself that is normative and not a huge terrifying event, that you can deal with capably. Think of it like showing someone who never gets minor wounds--all of their bleeding wounds are either nonexistent or massive injuries to significant vessels-- that if you accidentally cut yourself and bleed, well yes, it hurts, but you can wash the cut and dress it and deal with it, it's not a crisis that say a giant gash in an artery would be.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:08 PM on December 30, 2010

Have you seen this prior thread? This is quite a common problem. Hormones (birth control?) and medications, or lack thereof, can play a role. For me, the issue resolved itself totally and quickly when I started taking an SSRI antidepressant for other reasons.

Your solution of having these conversations over the phone is actually pretty brilliant. I'd consider using that solution even when you're in the same space.
posted by Corvid at 5:26 PM on December 30, 2010

I think you can relearn how to respond to someone who's crying. My boyfriend has gotten used to me crying when we talk about serious things and he understands and can deal with it now. The key for us is to talk about the serious thing when we're both in a pretty good place--calm, rested, not overly stressed. Then I'm better able to keep the tears at bay and he's able to react to them in a calmer way.

The important thing about this issue to me is that it's a pretty minor quirk in the grand scheme of things. If you love each other, you can work it out, and both of you can learn to accept you the way you are.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 6:23 PM on December 30, 2010

Oh yes, this was me a few years ago. What helped me was to email my husband*. I could get it all out, edit as necessary and then talk (verbally) when I was ready. I've since learned to communicate without the upsetting tears, although they do still happen now and then.

*He was all for working it out this way. Whatever needed to be done to be able to communicate was okay with him (and me!).

Good luck, anon, and please feel free to memail (or email) me.
posted by deborah at 6:33 PM on December 30, 2010

I'm with you on this - I learned my tears were just my body's way of releasing the energy and I tell that to people when it starts happening. It's been very, very inconvenient (I had to run out of a meeting where we were all being yelled at for just this reason) but I find if I let people know up front what happens and that it's just my body working stuff out and not to take it personally, it goes a long way to clearing things up.

Alternately, I write it all out in my journal and cry my ass off and THEN I can speak about it.
posted by Mysticalchick at 6:30 AM on December 31, 2010

The more you say the words that cause the tears, the less power they will have. Writing it out helps but if you have to actually talk at some point, you may not want to say the exact words you wrote... they may sound stilted or artificial. So do a lot of pre-talk to get really comfortable.

Another possibility- My issue is that I get frustrated that the person doesn't "get" what I am trying to say, and it's the frustration of incomplete communication that triggers the tears, not necessarily the issue being discussed. I am a more concerned with this than I should be, but that's how I am. I obsess over nuances and finding the perfect phrase, word etc. and rarely feel that the other person is able to grasp my meaning. I reach a point where the effort to communicate is not worth the stress & frustration so I just stop. Needless to say, I often feel pretty disconnected from people. I also avoid confrontation. I know I need to work on this. :-)
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:21 AM on December 31, 2010

« Older Okay, I'm stumped and my tech friend is stumped....   |   Dystopic Mental Reprogramming Filter? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.