When couples arrive in my office, often mad at one another for past hurts, they almost always make a huge mistake. They vent! They think that the therapy room is a safe place to say the things that they haven’t felt safe to say before. While that may be true, it doesn’t mean it will be helpful.
Yesterday, I witnessed this working with a couple who have been married for 20 years. They have been living separately for the past two months, and they came to see me to decide if they want to try and rebuild their marriage or get divorced. They were furious with each other.
Venting or Often Blaming
She didn’t want to talk first so he explained all the reasons his wife was difficult to live with. The more he spoke, calmly and evenly, the more she seethed. His hostility was covered over as he coolly explained that his inappropriate behaviors were, “how any reasonable person would respond when put in such situations.” But with each thing he said there was an embedded accusation and judgment about his wife.
She was not calm or cool in her delivery. She was fiery. Launching into a full-blown attack about what a lousy husband he had been for a long time. She was totally dismissive of his perspective and intent upon villainizing him.
When one of them spoke the other would interrupt, look and me, and insist that I understand their point of view: “That’s not true, that’s not the way it happened.” I explained, “Well, that’s the way it happened in her mind, or in his mind. And, it’s important for you to hear how your spouse thinks about you. I’m not saying he or she is right, but listen to how your partner represents you because that may help you decide what you want to do. Do you want to work to help your partner see you in a new light, or does it seem like it would be too much work?”
What is Venting?
Some people, and therapists, believe it is constructive to vent. When I say, “vent,” I mean to spew emotions in an uncensored way. There can be value in not censoring one’s self, but this is best done individually, for example when journaling. You might ask, “How about venting in a private therapy session, spewing emotions related to the other person when they’re not in the room?” No, I don’t think that’s helpful, either.
There are several problems with venting.
1) Almost always, if not always, when people vent they are speaking as a victim. And, rarely, as adults, are we victims. It can happen, but it’s not common.
2) Venting may make us feel powerful, but it’s actually a display of being powerless. I resort to a childlike way of expressing myself; blaming and out of control.
3) When someone witnesses us vent, we feel validated.
As a therapist I don’t want to validate my clients as victims or powerless people. This is not how I see them, and I don’t want them to think it is how I see them.
An Alternative to Venting
There is a healthy way to express feelings—maturely. We can express any feelings in two ways: maturely or immaturely. Said in a slightly different way, we can be kind or unkind. Is there ever an advantage to being immature or unkind? I see none.
Therefore, I only listened to the couple in my office for a short time before I asked them to stop. I pointed out that they know how to blame and hurt one another without my help. They didn’t come to my office to keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing that got them into the mess they’re in. So now is the time to learn to communicate in a new way. I taught them the basics of ReSpeak, which include taking responsibility for how you feel, not blaming the other person, talking about what you need right now, in this moment, and asking for what you want.
When people put ReSpeak into action they end up speaking in a mature way. It may or may not feel kind, but it is always mature. As soon as they make this shift in the way they speak, they also shift which neurons are firing in their brains, and the entire conversation changes.
In my opinion, venting has achieved an undeserved reputation of being valuable. It is not valuable and is often destructive. As far as venting when journaling, here too, I believe people can do better. There may be times when we have repressed our feelings and a little bit of free-flow venting in our journal will be useful. But only if after we vent—blame and rage—we then stop and rewrite what we just wrote in a manner that is mature and accepting of our own responsibility for whatever situation we find ourselves in.