How hiding your emotions hurts your relationship
If you are playing poker you need to suppress any expression of emotion. After all, the strategy of poker is not in the cards but in reading other people’s faces.
Generally speaking, people are pretty good at reading other people’s emotions, especially paying attention to their facial expressions, body posture, and vocal intonations. Expressive suppression is therefore an attempt to hide your expressions of emotion from another person.
Expressive suppression and conflict
There are situations where expressive suppression is beneficial. But according to University of Auckland (New Zealand) psychologist Eri Sasaki and her colleagues, hiding your emotions from your intimate partner takes a toll on your relationship.
One way for some people to deal with conflict is to act straightforward, hiding all of the other person’s feelings. If your boss is berating you for something that isn’t even your fault, you might want to suppress your emotions, at least if you want to keep your job. But when you disagree with your partner, you need to let your emotions shine so that they can read them.
Conflicts are inevitable in relationships. And while they’re never fun, they can actually help strengthen the relationship if done right. It means expressing appropriate levels of emotion, because successfully resolving a conflict is all about gaining new knowledge about how your partner feels about a particular issue, and vice versa. So when you try to keep your cool in the heat of the moment, you are disrupting an important communication process.
Expressive suppression as a “weak link”
In a study they recently published in the journal Emotion, Sasaki and colleagues suggested that a couple’s regular use of expressive suppression, especially during conflict, would be associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Specifically, they suggested that expressive suppression would be a “weak link,” meaning that even if only one partner used to suppress their emotional expressions, both partners would feel less satisfaction in the relationship.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers looked at data from 427 heterosexual couples engaged in long-term relationships. Each partner responded separately to a questionnaire measuring their ability to regulate their emotions, including their use of expressive suppression as well as their ability to use cognitive reassessment to reassess emotional exchanges with their partner. They also reported their relationship satisfaction and their ability to resolve conflicts with their partner.
As expected, expressive suppression was associated with lower relationship satisfaction. This was also true for those who expressed their emotions even though their partner usually held back on theirs. So, expressive suppression is a “weak link” in a relationship, meaning that it only takes one to make both partners miserable.
Manage expressive suppression of your partner and yours
So what do you do if your partner shuts down emotionally during conflict? A finding from this study suggests that cognitive reassessment could help you cope with your partner’s expressive suppression.
Instead of assuming that your partner is intentionally cold towards you, you should ask yourself if there is anything in their personal history that causes them to suppress their emotions during conflict. You may be able to resolve this issue through warm and supportive conversations about this issue, but you may need therapy so that you both can gain sufficient understanding.
Sasaki and colleagues point out that expressive suppression is not only disruptive during conflict. Even in our daily interactions with our partner, we are constantly adjusting our behaviors as we read their emotional expressions.
A warm smile from our partner is more encouraging than any word that can be said. This is because the words may not be sincere, but the facial expressions are generally honest. Likewise, a pouting frown from our partner motivates us to mend much more effectively than anger does. After all, we respond empathically to emotional expressions but defensively to verbal criticism.
In short, it’s time to put your poker face to face and put your cards on the table when it comes to your relationship. If you feel uncomfortable expressing emotions, try to figure out why, perhaps with the help of a counselor. Rather than shielding yourself from harm, your expressive suppression prevents you from enjoying the fullness of an intimate relationship with another person.
Likewise, if your partner is ice cold even at the hottest time, try to figure out what it is in their past that is causing them to react that way. If you show genuine concern, over time you may be able to break through their frozen facade.