Associating emotions with situations and people can vary widely depending on what we learned in our childhood from our parents. For example, someone who has difficulty expressing their emotions may have been taught to hide them as a child. Nonetheless, in our adult lives, the most powerful emotions we will experience, whether positive or negative, are with our partners. Understanding how your emotions affect your relationship is important to maintaining a healthy connection with your partner.
Depending on your background, you may have learned to be more open or closed about expressing your emotions. Some cultures foster a more open expression of emotions, whereas others have a more restrained stance. You and your partner are different people and have different ways of expressing your emotions. Having a discussion with your partner about how emotions were handled in your families may give you some insight into the dynamic of your relationship. This kind of discussion may also help you learn about the differences between you by deepening your understanding of how each of you expresses emotions.
Sometimes, the way we express our emotions show in the way we expressed them in childhood. Although, in many families, both boys and girls are free to express their emotions, in some other families, boys and girls are forced to express their emotions based on their gender. For example, some parents may be more protective of girls and more tolerant of their emotions as they view them as more vulnerable, while they view boys as the protectors of the family who need avoid emotional outbursts.
Triggers in relationships.
Professionals use the word “trigger” to refer to factors that set off emotions. Research has identified the following triggers as the most common in relationships:
- Promises that were not fulfilled.
- Criticism and contempt.
- Withdrawal of affection.
- Fear and uncertainty.
- Threats of retaliation or divorce.
How emotions affect us.
All human beings experience surface emotions and deep emotions. Surface emotions are the ones that you can see. For example, you can see that your partner is angry, sad, or withdrawn. But deeper emotions are the most important feelings. These are the feelings that produce surface emotions.
Surface emotions include:
- Withdrawal from discussion.
- Pushing your partner to talk.
Deep emotions, on the other hand, include:
- Feeling abandoned.
- Feeling unlovable.
If you are not aware of your deep emotions, you will not be able to change the way you react. When you are upset, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for your emotions, activates and you become alert. This alertness causes sensitivity to the outside world, especially to your partner’s mood. When you feel that the emotional bond you have created with your partner is threatened in any way, the amygdala triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When this happens, you tend toward extreme behaviors such as aggression, avoidance, or silence to protect yourself. During these behaviors, your relationship becomes vulnerable because things are said which can cause emotional trauma to each other. Dysfunctional emotional communication always leads to a pattern of arguing. Over time, this pattern leads to major conflicts that will eventually harm the relationship.
Digging for deep emotions.
Here are some tips that might be helpful for getting closer to your deep emotions:
- When you realize you are in a cycle of negative emotions and those surface emotions are taking over, stop, take some deep breaths, and calm down. Take a break and then ask your partner if this is the appropriate time to talk about your emotions. When you both agree on setting some time aside to talk openly about your emotions, emotional communication will be more successful.
- When you feel calmer, process your thoughts and try to make connections to see what’s causing your surface emotions. Maybe you will discover what lies deep down.
- Try to find the trigger for your negative surface emotions. Is it something said or not said to you? Is it a broken promise?
- Be aware of your thoughts and don’t let yourself make assumptions about your partner’s behavior. When we experience intense emotions, we tend to make negative assumptions. It’s important to keep a neutral stance regarding your partner.
- Stay calm and express your deep emotions with words. For example, you might say, “I felt insecure when you didn’t call to say goodnight.”
- Give your partner some time to respond. Be open and curious about their thoughts and what might be going on for them. This is an opportunity to build an understanding between you.
The importance of understanding and expressing your emotions.
Learning to understand your emotions and express them in a healthy way within your relationship is important for partners to grow both individually and together.
To achieve this growth, we need to follow certain steps:
- Be more insightful into how and why you react to triggers so you can build greater self-awareness.
- Be open in expressing your needs and wants with your partner in ways that strengthen the bond that you already have.
- Improve your ability to control your emotions by sharing them with your partner.
- Learn how to reflect on your emotions so you can understand what pushes you to the limit and how to react more calmly to triggers.
- Learn how to communicate with your partner in positive ways.
Sharing emotions with your partner.
The following tips may help you feel more comfortable and prepared to share your emotions with your partner:
Accept that your emotions are neither right nor wrong. Just because you are feeling a specific emotion, that doesn’t give you the right to act on it. For example, you don’t have the right to be aggressive or violent whenever we feel upset.
Name your emotions. By learning to name your emotions, you help your partner understand what we are experiencing. This will help build empathy and understanding between you.
Understand that emotions change constantly.
Learn to distinguish emotions from thoughts.
Share your deep emotions—not just what you show on the surface. By sharing your deep emotions, you can promote intimacy and closeness with your partner.
Never judge your partner’s emotions. Never do something you wouldn’t want others do to you; therefore, don’t judge your partner’s emotions. Instead, encourage openness.
Verbalize your emotions. It is important to understand that your partner is not a mind reader. Always use clear words to communicate your emotions.
Relationship coaching and emotional communication.
Emotional communication is essential for maintaining a healthy and loving relationship. Harboring negative emotions is something most couples who experience problems do when they are upset, but when they discuss their emotions and the root cause with a professional, they can learn how to convert these negativities into productive moments. Couples with emotional problems will learn through relationship coaching how to reach their deeper emotions in order to change their surface emotions and the resulting behaviors. Relationship coaching may also help couples learn to slow down the emotional rush they feel during various triggers in order to allow their thought process to come into play. In this way, partners will learn to react in a calmer way during emotional communication and will eventually become more aware of their deeper emotions, and most importantly, express them to each other in a way they both understand.
A relationship coach can help partners explore their feelings and emotions to better understand why those emotions are happening. Then, it can offer practical solutions to help turn negative feelings around and replace them with positive feelings that enhance the quality of the relationship.
Being mindful about your emotions and gaining control of them is a challenge for anyone. But, if accomplished, it will help your relationship thrive. Learning to transform negative emotions into positive ones benefits every area of your life. Optimism and positivity in relationships help partners view their challenges as opportunities for growth. When partners don’t need to blame each other for their emotions, they are not controlled by negativity and don’t fall into the patterns we’ve described. Partners who view their differences as a challenge to get closer will grow individually and collectively stronger. Though it’s difficult when negative emotions arise, it is necessary to accept that they exist. Being in a relationship and loving your partner doesn’t mean you will never feel disappointed, angry, jealous, or hurt. Partners who accept responsibility for their behaviors and accept each other become more tolerant of each other’s unique flaws.
You chose your partner for reasons that have more to do with what you think than how you feel. When you understand that loving each other is not just a feeling but also involves validating, respecting, and accepting each other, your love will grow a little bit every day and your bond will become stronger.
Bloch, L., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2014). Emotion regulation predicts marital satisfaction: more than a wives’ tale. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 14(1), 130–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034272.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1986). Assessing the role of emotion in marriage. Behavioral Assessment, 8(1), 31–48.
Madden-Derdich, Debra. (2002). The Role of Emotions in Marriage and Family Therapy. Marriage and Family Review – MARRIAGE FAM REV. 34. 165-179. 10.1300/J002v34n01_08.