As a therapist, my least favorite answer to a question is probably “I don’t know…”. I mean I always think (rather critically), Really? You don’t know? Yes you do. You’re in your head, not me. Just tell me! As I’ve been thinking about this more I’ve realized that I have the same response to my husband when he gives me non-answers like “Where do you want to go to eat?” “I don’t know, you pick.”, “How are you feeling about this?” “I don’t know.”, “Did I hurt your feelings?” “I don’t know.”, “I just told you how upset I am about all of this, don’t you have any response?” “I don’t know.”. I’ve always been frustrated and a little impatient with it, whether it’s in my own marriage or in my relationship with clients in the therapy room because I don’t understand “not knowing” how you’re feeling. I usually have about a thousand ways to express what I’m thinking and feeling!
Here’s what I didn’t know about “I don’t know.”. It’s true! They don’t know! Earth-shattering, right? But truly, they really don’t know in that moment how to put into words what’s happening for them. Since this was obviously a hard concept for me to accept and understand, I turned to Emotionally Focused Therapy to help explain some of this phenomenon in a way I’d never grasped before. Hopefully it can help you with your partner too if you’re like me and get frustrated with “non-answers”.
The types of people who respond with “I don’t know…” or don’t share their feelings very openly are often the people we call “withdrawers” because in a relationship conflict, they are the ones who leave the room, stonewall, or just go blank. They’re often accused of not being sensitive or caring enough about their partner to check in and engage in the fight. What we see on the outside is these people either passive-aggressively not responding, or shutting down because they just don’t care enough, but what is really happening is their senses are getting flooded and they’re desperately searching for the “right” response to help their partner, it just usually takes longer than the partner has patience to wait for.
This behavior often (not always) starts for these withdrawers when they’re younger. They typically come from the type of family where the best way to get love and comfort from their parents was to be “the golden child”, or not make mistakes. They were taught very young that the best way to ensure their happiness and emotional (and physical) safety was to keep the other person happy because if they made the wrong move, they were punished and lost the loving comfort of their parents. This means that they probably heard phrases when they were little like, “Stop crying! You’re driving me crazy!” and “You shouldn’t be overreacting like this!”, instead of experiencing comfort when they showed strong emotion. You can imagine why as adults these people aren’t sure what to do with their strong emotions–they never learned that it was safe to explore them in a relationship where they were seeking love in return.
With a good therapist in couples therapy, hopefully these partners have the space for the first time to really sit with their overwhelmed senses, take their time to think of how to describe what they’re feeling, and try to respond to their partner without the fear of getting clobbered (verbally) like they usually do. We find that their anxious partners are often surprised and relieved to hear what they have to say (or that they actually have something to say), but wary of trusting it at first. It usually comes as a shock to most couples that one partner gets overwhelmed because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing again and hurting their partner further. This is very different from the narrative that the partner just has no emotional intelligence or “doesn’t have the capacity to feel.” With practice and patience, though, couples can start creating more safety for ALL types of responses, so the withdrawn partner feels like they can explore their feelings without fear of “getting it wrong”, which helps the more anxious partner relax because they can more clearly see their partner trying to engage with them.
Are you usually the partner responding with “I don’t know”? Or are you the partner desperate to hear from your withdrawn partner? Take the RELATE Assessment together as a couple today to open up the conversation about your communication and connection!
12 thoughts on “Why Your Partner Responds With, “I Don’t Know…””
My partner is usually the one that says I don’t know
I had a conversation w/my bf of 3 yrs last night, and while pouring out my soul, I got nothing but “I don’t know”. He says he wants to be w/me, says he is sexually attracted to me, and that he wants a future but he shuts down completely. Sex is gone, after his father died of cancer after 10 yrs, and my mom died within 7 days, things were tough. I have tried talking to him 13x, but he just gives me lame excuses, and shuts down. Is there a way to help him, and I don’t really have a lot of money to spend on trying to get him to open up. Please help.
I am the male and am the withdrawing partner. I don’t know how to respond at the moment and it keeps killing me that I’m hurting my partner for it. This is because she knows and tells me that she hates it when I say “I don’t know”. I kept being led to the situation where I have 2 options which make me feel utterly hopeless no matter how hard I’m trying to make her not upset. I either say “I don’t know” or say nothing or be passive when I’m actually losing my mind while hating myself because I’m not the perfect partner she wants me to be. It scares me to death that I keep making these mistakes. Something bad will happen if this goes on, surely. I just don’t know how to fix myself.
Have you tried to think about what she said instead of focusing on yourself? It looks like you are too busy thinking about your own feelings to notice her or listen to what she is saying. Try to truly listen and forget yourself for a bit.
Recently i broke up with my boyfriend but i am trying to get him back but he is very cold towards me. I know i hurt him the way i told him lets break up because the relationship was not going anywhere. But somehow I really do need him. Maybe because I got attached to him? Or because we live in same place? He would respond I don’t know often, such as when I say can I spend more time here he would say I don’t know, or when i kiss him and say should i stop it he would say ‘ I don’t know’. So i am very confused right now
This sounds like my boyfriend. His “go-to” Answer to EVERYTHING is I don’t know anits driving me insane!me
My husband uses this answer to 95% of the questions that I ask him, and it is infuriating. I’ve had some time to think about it, and I really think that it comes down to the following reasons:
1) He is uncomfortable being the one to call the shots. It may sound strange because we believe in the more traditional view that the husband is the head of the household and that after discussing a matter the man has the final say. But in actuality my husband has made very few decisions. His mother called the shots when he lived at home, and now that he is with me and is in a situation where he cannot contribute anything to the household, it’s like he feels a little emasculated and unworthy of making decisions. So, he says, “I don’t know,” and I am left to call the shots.
2) He is uninterested in the topic at hand. If I asked him about things that give him a thrill then I get an answer. if I asked him any other question, even about what he wants to eat, he doesn’t know, and then I get an earful for subsequently doing whatever until I remind him that he didn’t know when I asked him.
3) He is a lazy thinker. My husband is admittedly not the sharpest tool in the shed and he has a hard time figuring out some simple things. Also, because of his mental illness he has a hard time sorting through competing thoughts and the information that I am asking him for gets lost. Instead of applying techniques to help with that he would rather say that he doesn’t know and let me make the decision.
4) He doesn’t want me to know the truth about certain matters. I know that my husband does not completely trust me with what he is thinking, and Lord knows that he has no clue to even describe what he is feeling or why. He is the least introspective person that I know. But for those times that he knows but doesn’t want to tell me, he just says that he doesn’t know to save face.
My goodness, this is my exact life. I’m not sure how much more I can take. How do you stay?
Recently my partner has become distant. Only talking to me in the mornings and at night. He says i can text him whenever but when i do he barely replies. He told me he loved me and knows hes not reallt showing it and then says i dont know. I asked him if he still loved me or if he was in love with someone else or just doesnt love me anymore he said. “Its not that babe i just dont know.” please someone help me. I dont want to lose him again…
Recently my partner has become distant. Only talking to me in the mornings and at night. He says i can text him whenever but when i do he barely replies. He told me he loved me and knows hes not really showing it and then says i dont know. I asked him if he still loved me or if he was in love with someone else or just doesnt love me anymore he said. “Its not that babe i just dont know.” please someone help me. I dont want to lose him again…
What happened Darla?? I’m in the same situation. What happened between you two????
I disagree, everyone knows the answers to questions that are presented or asked of them when it’s pertaining to how they feel. People just have a hard time with being honest and forth coming because they are afraid of the other persons reaction, or they want to spare a persons feelings. Everyone truly knows what they want and instead of burying your feelings and putting up walls you should just be truthful to your partner and yourself. You will not get anywhere in life constantly hiding behind fear. Once you’re truly honest with yourself and others you will be liberated. Remember, it’s not fare to you or your partner to not know the truth.