Research has shown that suppressing your emotions pretty well shuts down communication within a relationship. Let's chat about what the findings from one study might mean for your relationship. James Gross, a scientist who studies emotion, found that when we try to suppress emotion, this is what happens:
- It's very hard to do; basically it doesn't work. We have to work very hard to shut an emotion down once it is up and running, and in the process, we often get more agitated and tense. This is especially true in close relationships when the trigger for the emotion—the other person—is still there giving us signals that get us all fired up.
- Emotion doesn't stay inside our skin. When we try to shut feelings off, the people we are relating to also get more and more tense.
When we deny our feelings, our partners probably get tense because our faces register our feelings way faster than the thinking part of the brain can shut them down. So our partner knows there is something going on when we say, "Oh, nothing is wrong. I am fine." This partner also knows that we are shutting them out. When partners can't read our cues, they can't predict our behavior. We say one thing but they see another. It makes sense that they get tense. Probably this uncertainty puts everyone off balance and adds to the likelihood that the conversation, or even the whole evening, will go sour.
Emotions are fast. It takes about 100 milliseconds for our brain to react emotionally and about 600 milliseconds for our thinking brain, our cortex, to register this reaction. By the time you decide that it's better not to get mad or to be sad, your face has been expressing it for 500 milliseconds. Too late; the emotional signal has been sent. It's like pressing "send" on your email before you double-check the content and address. Not only that, but when you deny the message, this is puzzling for your partner and makes it harder for them to feel relaxed and safe with you. You are suddenly someone who can shut them out as if they don't matter.
What does all this tell us as lovers and partners? It tells us that the shut down and suppress strategy should be used with care. That it doesn't do what we usually hope it will, namely calm us down, lower the tenor of a conversation, or bypass a fight. Most of the time, we shut down out of habit. We do it because we don't know what else to do. What I see, as a couple's therapist, is that it really isn't so dangerous to just say that you are mad, sad, scared, surprised, somehow ashamed or full of joy. This list is about it for the real core universal emotions. When we name our emotions we often feel more grounded, more in control. And we give our partner the chance to respond — to empathize.
And in the end, giving our partner a chance to show us they care, that they can be with us and be there for us, is one of the magic ingredients of a loving relationship.