Communication — 25 November 2007
How to best share your emotions with your mate

Some people are aware of their feelings and easily express them. Others rarely speak of their emotions and are not easily prodded to do so. A union between an emotionally expressive mate and a non-expressive one may create frequent conflicts. How can these mates facilitate their differences to both of their satisfaction?

People who readily voice their feelings often perceive the less expressive mate as closed, withholding, distant and unavailable. “I’ve lived with my spouse for many years and I still do not know how he/she feels about many issues”. This speaker voices a sense of estrangement and lack of intimacy that he/she desires. The less expressive mate may find the more verbal partner as too revealing, highly emotional and perhaps even overwhelming.

Culturally, an individual who appropriately expresses feelings is often viewed as open, easy to read, friendly and authentic. A less expressive person is perceived as emotionally secretive, unknown or mysterious.

There is research evidence to suggest that expressing emotions is healthy. Dr. Matthew D. Liberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience, used modern brain imaging techniques to study how verbalizing our feelings reduces our sadness, anger and pain. He found that: “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”

Dr Craig Hassad at Monash University has no doubt that the mind is a potent instrument in healing. “What you think, and your emotions, can have a powerful effect on your immune system”.

The success of twelve step programs for addictions is attributed, in part, to its members’ opportunity to express their emotions to others who understand.

Group sharing of emotions helps with grief reduction and specialized patients’ groups suffering from acute or chronic illnesses.

All relationship books and therapists tout the importance of good communication and emotional sharing between mates.

Despite the known advantages of expressing one’s emotions some people are disinclined to do so for various reasons. They may be temperamentally prone to processing their feelings through thoughts or find their mates’ expression of emotions uncomfortable or dramatic. They may have learned in childhood that emotional expression was non-rewarding or unsafe and thus choose in adulthood to refrain from voicing their feelings.

In adult relationships, the insistence of the emotionally expressive mate to have the partner divulge his/her feelings may feel controlling and/or unsafe self-exposure. The silent person may be ill equipped to verbalize emotions, may be afraid of criticism or of excessive inquiry for which he/she may not have a response. Some mates have not acquired the skills to name their emotions or converse about them and thus prefer to abstain from venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Yet others are concerned that their emotions will be misunderstood, discounted or argued with or that they will not be able to justify them.

Feelings are actually useful guides in reducing pain and increasing pleasure. All emotions are neither good nor bad; they are the catalysts for the individual’s psychological self-preservation and enhancement. For example, anger is the call to action upon feeling threatened, grief is the balancing of loss toward emotional homeostasis, hurt is the call for self-care and guilt is the motivator for repairing conduct. Similarly, happiness is the expression of gratitude for a good relationship and life, love is the cement of commitment, empathy is the enforcer of bonding and compassion reinforces intimacy.

• Avoid criticizing your mate’s emotional style: “You never cry, I guess you don’t care”. There is no correct way to express feelings.
• Accept your mate’s emotions as they are – it helps him/her confide in you. “I see how upsetting this is for you” should replace “Why are you getting so hysterical about small things?”
• All feelings are valid and essential for emotional wellbeing. “How can you feel this way?” only extinguishes the forthcoming of future sharing.
• Ask for nonverbal input of positive emotion from your partner, if you need it. “I would love a hug when I am upset.”
• Express emotions in a modulated way – it will help your mate receive it better.
• Ask for the response you desire: “I would like to hear you say that you are sorry about my stress when I voice it”. A loving request will help grant you your wish, help your mate know how to please you and assist both of you in managing your emotions better.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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