Hopefully you would never use your partner as a physical punching bag. Using your partner as an emotional punching bag, however, may be something you do without even realizing it. Dealing with frustration can cause you to hurt your partner without realizing that you are doing anything wrong.
So what is an emotional punching bag? A punching bag is often used to help people release their anger and frustration. An emotional punching bag, then, is someone you give your anger and frustration to in an attempt to rid yourself of the emotion. Now, there are a number of ways you can do this, with the most obvious being behaving in an angry or aggressive way toward your partner. What we are talking about this week, however, is the less recognized way: constant venting to your partner about your life.
Carlson points out that some venting in relationships can be helpful. Sharing your frustrations with your partner allows you to feel that someone else is sharing your emotions, which can be a relief. Also, I would argue that venting in small quantities also helps your partner stay connected with what is going on in your life, which helps create the love maps that John Gottman found were one of the seven things essential for happy marriages.
However, venting can become excessive, and when it does, it can be emotionally harmful for your partner. As Carlson puts it,
Even though some venting is probably inevitable, there is a bit of selfishness involved as well… When we vent, someone else may be paying the price.
The person on the receiving end often finds the onslaught of negativity overwhelming, and may find that their own mood moves toward the negative.
As someone who has been on both ends of this behavior, I agree wholeheartedly with Carlson’s assessment. When I first started teaching, I struggled mightily to adjust to my new role, and found myself venting to my husband on a nearly constant basis. Fortunately for me, he does well at separating his emotions from the emotions of others, so he dealt with my bad behavior fairly well. As he has moved into his new job here, however, it has been his turn to overdo it on the venting at times, and I really struggle with staying positive when I hear so many negative things. I’ve chosen to take the experience as practice for taking responsibility for my own emotions, but that does not make the experience pleasant or easy.
Ultimately, healthy venting is all about moderation. By all means, share your experiences with your partner. Let them support you sometimes. However, if you find yourself venting on a constant basis, or if you see your partner getting stressed, it might be time to slow it down. That might mean setting a limit for yourself on the amount of venting you can do, scheduling a time for venting, or calling a friend or family member sometimes instead of venting everything to your partner.
So this week, your first step will be to determine whether your relationship has too much venting and, if so, to start working toward a healthier balance. If you find it tricky, be sure to check out Wednesday’s post for some resources to help you out.