Fear of the Clear Message

I was listening to Allison Puryear’s awesome practice building podcast the other day, and she had on a colleague who was talking about the fear of clarity. Her colleague, fellow practice-building friend Jane Carter, was talking about how therapists can have a lot of fear around sending a clear message about their niche, for fear of not getting enough clients coming through the door.

I couldn’t help but think of couples work. So much of what I’m seeing is that we think we are sending a clear message to our partners, but we really aren’t at all. And there seems to be a yearning for the clear message at the same time as there is a fear of it. Most people will say they want clarity, but with clarity comes potential rejection. I think for that reason there can be a lot of veiled messages. “I’ll show a little of what I want! And they should see that!” Versus, “I’ll be really clear about what I want, and they could chose to say no.”

Have you seen this? A couple in a dating relationship where one partner is partially disengaged, and the more engaged partner says in multiple different ways “I need to know if he/she really wants to be in this relationship.” And the other partner says in the room, “I do want to be with you,” but so much of their energy and actions outside the room says otherwise? And they may have even communicated their lack of engagement to you in their individual session?

I’m not talking about an extreme pursue/withdraw cycle where the withdrawer does very much want the relationship but doesn’t look like it because they’re shutting down so much. I’m talking about either the pursuer or withdrawer clearly have signs they aren’t as interested in the relationship moving forward, but aren’t ready for it to end right this minute. This visual I always get with this is that they want their partner to be an arms length away. They don’t want them all the way gone, and will make some effort not to totally lose them, but don’t want them all the way close, and will block them from getting that close.

For me the question is always, what is my role in the room? I’ve been a little stuck when the less engaged person says, “I do want to be here.” Because I feel like I need to believe what they’re saying. But if we just stay there it does nothing, really, because the more engaged partner can feel on some level that they other person isn’t quite there, and it just makes them feel confused and crazy. So my goal for myself is to honor what they’re saying with reflection, and then bring in the other, unspoken part, by asking more about this other part that shows up in their day to day lives.

I wonder if I could say something like, “So a part of you is telling your partner, right now in the room, ‘I do want to be with you, Jane.’ But am I hearing this right, that often outside of the room that there are topics of conversation that you won’t engage in, that are off limits? Can you help me understand what’s happening for you in those moments?” Then I could bring that over to the other partner and ask how it is for them in those moments where their partner won’t engage – what message does that send them? And hopefully get a clearer message from them about their attachment fear.


Confusing Dialogue:

P1: “I don’t want to even bring it up anymore, he doesn’t want to talk about it. I don’t even think he really wants to be in this.”

P2: “I do want to be in this.”


Clearer Dialogue:

 P1: “When you do this xyz, I take that to mean you aren’t as committed as I am to this relationship. I get scared you’ll never be.”

 P2: “When you bring this up, I just get overwhelmed and shut down, because I’m not ready to have this conversation, and I’m afraid if tell you that you’ll leave immediately.”


I think both partners fear the clear message in this circumstance. The more engaged partner may not want to say, “Hey, I need you to be fully engaged and if you’re not, this doesn’t work for me,” because they don’t want to scare their partner away. The less engaged partner may not want to say, “I don’t want you as close as you want to be, but I don’t want to lose you completely,” because they might lose them right now, before they’re ready. 

This continues to be one of the trickier areas to navigate for me! Have you encountered this and found a particular approach/intervention to be successful?