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Need to Vent

February 20, 2020

Sometimes, we just need to vent. We need to blow off steam and get something off our chest. My supervisor drives me crazy! I could just strangle Aunt Louise! The way our kids were arguing in the car, I wanted to pull over and abandon them right there! When we’re filled with emotion following a challenging experience, conversation isn’t necessarily what we’re looking for. A partner’s advice or help doesn’t usually fit the bill. It’s compassion, empathy and a non-reactive witness we seek as we open our release valve.

If you’re the partner listening to venting, here’s what to offer: no pushback or advice, good eye contact, an occasional nod of acceptance, ideally some empathy (“That sounds really irritating” or “I hear how upset you are.”) What isn’t helpful is inserting yourself in any way that obstructs the flow of your partner’s emotion. Why do you let your supervisor get to you? But Aunt Louise is always so nice at our holiday party. Maybe if you took some deep breaths when you get worked up, driving the kids home from school would be easier.

The wrong response to a partner’s venting tends to create an unpleasant relationship moment. How frustrating and disappointing it feels when one’s venting is met by remarks — no matter how well-intended — that interrupt the flow with advice, suggestions, or worse, criticism. “I was only trying to be helpful” rarely salvages the venting partner’s dismay — and sometimes isn’t really the truth.  

A partner’s venting — the strong emotion that fills the air — can trigger in us fear, upset, sadness — any number of emotions. Sometimes we feel what our partner feels, a kind of contagion that occurs in the face of another’s pain. Managing our own emotions while at the same time offering compassion and empathy can be a tall order. When we fail at it, we squander a rich opportunity for deeply satisfying connection. When we succeed, we’ve made a significant deposit into the marital bank account (Your Bank Account, July 2018).

If experience has taught you that you can’t depend on getting the response you’re looking for when you need to vent, start out with a simple prompt: I need to vent for a few minutes and would like compassion and empathy, nothing more. Can you give me that?