When partners aren’t able to express their emotions, it can erode the relationship. Emotions give us important information that we can use to better understand our needs, priorities and limits. We can use emotions to set boundaries and make decisions.
“If you’re not authentically experiencing, expressing, and learning from your emotions, then that erodes trust, security, intimacy and closeness,” said Jared DeFife, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and relationship coach in Atlanta, Ga.
If a partner isn’t sharing their sadness, loss or grief, the relationship doesn’t become a safe haven for dealing with conflict, he said. If a partner isn’t in touch with their healthy anger or assertion, he explained, resentments will build up over time.
DeFife regularly works with individuals and couples who struggle with emotions. One reason for this struggle is that individuals might have been taught that having and showing emotions is a sign of weakness or not being in control, he said.
Individuals also worry that feeling their feelings will open the floodgates; the emotions will be overwhelming and never stop, he said. For instance, a common misconception is if you start crying, your tears will never dry up. Or “if you express feeling scared, you’ll get so anxious, you’ll shut down and not be able to function.”
Consequently, people avoid, ignore or push down their emotions. This only makes emotions feel like monsters in the closet, he said: “If you don’t face them, they [remain] hidden, and they take on an even scarier aspect in your mind.”
When someone isn’t used to feeling their feelings, and they finally do, it can be overwhelming. DeFife likened it to tucking away boxes in the basement: When you open the door, all the boxes you’ve put away start toppling out.
However, while emotions can be very powerful they’re also temporary, he added. “They have a wave to them. They build up, and over time, they pass if you go through them without obstructing them.”
Ultimately, navigating emotions healthfully is hard for many of us, and it can be frustrating and confusing when your partner isn’t attuned to their feelings and isn’t able to communicate them.
So what can you do to help your partner express their emotions?
You can think of your partner’s emotions as party guests, DeFife said, and focus on creating a safe, supportive space for welcoming their feelings. Below, he shared several specific tips.
1. Invite your partner’s emotions.
“People aren’t going to come over unless they’re invited. You have to send out the invitation,” DeFife said. The same is true for emotions. This might mean creating a regular routine where you and your partner sit down to discuss emotions. If your partner isn’t ready to share their feelings at that time, this might mean scheduling a time when they are, he said.
2. Don’t judge your partner’s emotions.
No one would attend a party where the host berates the guests — “What are you wearing? That’s hideous! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
It’s important for “partners to really think about how they’re setting the stage to invite [their partner’s] emotions in with acceptance, and making it an inviting place to bring them,” DeFife said.
Part of creating a welcoming space for partners is not judging their feelings when they finally express them. Avoid saying statements like “How could you be sad about that?! That doesn’t make any sense,” or “You shouldn’t feel that way!” Judging your partner’s emotions will only make them defensive and on guard, DeFife said.
3. Pay attention to your own reactions.
Like judging your partner’s emotions, your other reactions may shut down the conversation. If you find yourself getting defensive, angry or upset, acknowledging it to your partner can help.
For instance, DeFife said, you might say something like, “I know I do these things when I get revved up. Let me know when you feel like I’m doing that.”
Other times, both of you may simply need a timeout, he said.
If you also have a hard time experiencing and expressing your emotions, DeFife stressed the importance of remembering the truth about emotions: They aren’t a weakness or something to control. Rather, emotions provide us with valuable information.
Explore, too, how the messages from your emotions have helped you in the past, he said. Journal about emotional topics or significant life events, even for a few days, he added. This helps you process your emotions. And then if you feel safe, you can share the emotion with someone else, he said.
If you’re looking for more information on coping with emotions or navigating emotions in a relationship, DeFife suggested these books:
- Living Like You Mean It: Use the Wisdom and Power of Your Emotions to Get the Life You Really Want by Ronald J. Frederick.
- Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships by Sue Johnson.
- The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change by Diana Fosha.
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver.