Respect your partner’s emotional style

Our emotions often thrill us and sometimes frighten us. Whether they are positive or negative, intense emotions are unsettling to our personal equilibrium. Cultural norms dictate emotional containment as one of its parameters of civility. Yet, understanding and accepting our emotions can greatly enhance the quality of our personal and relational lives.

The behavioral neurobiologist, Antonio Damasco of USC Brain and Creativity Institute explains that all experiences sensed in our bodies and processed in our brain utilize emotions toward life-enhancing choices.

Susan Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) writes, “Science suggests that emotion is anything but primitive and unpredictable. It is a complex, exquisitely efficient information processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interest of survival.”

As valuable as emotions are in facilitating decision-making and survival, most people are cautious about exhibiting their intense positive or negative feelings. They often fear that expressing their tender emotions may render them weak, inadequate or dependent, while strong negative affect may be associated with being ill-tempered.

Experts found that there are six basic human regulating emotions: anger, shame, sadness, joy, surprise and fear. In order for us to safeguard our interpersonal connection, we must manage these painful feelings well enough to avoid being viewed by others as “emotionally out of control”.

In intimate relationships it may be hard for us to manage our natural emotions in service of our wellbeing and at the same time keep our beloved comfortable. When our emotive expressions of anger, fear, sadness or joy are met with the displeasure of our mate, it may restrict us from being emotionally authentic.

One’s affect may be temperamentally hard for a spouse to handle. For example, a highly emotionally expressive partner may be perplexing for a contained mate. An exuberant and overjoyed mate may feel shunned by a taciturn and bashful counterpart. Commonly, men may be more likely to feel overwhelmed by women’s excitability of joy or sadness and women may complain about male stoicism. When couples emotive styles are divergent a distance between them may occur to the disadvantage of both.

Some individuals become uncomfortable with their own style of emotional expression. They may fear being categorized with one of Dr. Johnson’s 4 D’s labels: defective, disintegrating, drowning or dismissed. Since the need for approval and connection between mates is primary in love relationships, fear about a spouse’s negative view may hinder authentic behavior.

To stay true to your neurologically programmed, self-preserving emotions and maintain your relationship you must understand and accept your emotions, respect your mate’s emotive style and treat your differences with love and compassion.

Befriend your emotions:

  • Understand that your emotions are physiologically programmed to protect and facilitate your decision-making for survival.
  • Accept that mutuality of emotions between you and your partner will occur sometimes but is not a key to marital happiness.

Develop an accepting and supportive attitude toward your and your spouse’s emotional styles, as different as they may be, for greater marital harmony.

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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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