Healthy emotions are paramount when it comes to having a stable and mature relationship because, without emotions, a relationship can never survive. But, no matter how strong you might believe your relationship to be, there is one thing that can absolutely destroy it- Unexpressed feelings.
Unexpressed feelings have been one of the main causes of friction in romantic relationships, since forever.
Bottling up your emotions and never expressing them can hamper your relationship for good.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
In troubled romantic relationships, unexpressed feelings lead to emotional distance and harsh conflict.
How do you deal with your difficult feelings—including resentment, anger, sadness, hurt, shame, and fear—in your relationship? Do you stuff them inside? Do you attack whoever influenced those feelings to arise?
For example, Ryan and Danny have been married for three years and have an ongoing fight about the TV. Ryan complains about how the TV is always on and sucking Danny into it, while Danny complains that all Ryan does is a nag.
|Words Said or Actions||Feelings||Hidden Wish|
|Ryan: “All you care about is the stupid tv and your sports team.”||Loneliness||The criticism hides Ryan’s longing for being fully present with Danny|
|Danny: “I deserve time to relax after work. All you ever do is nag me. Get off my back.”||Anger and inadequacy||The defensiveness hides Danny feeling blocked from the time needed to relax and the fear of not being an adequate lover for Ryan|
|Ryan walks away in anger||Fear of being too much to love||Hopes Danny will turn off the TV and offer reassurance (Hint: Protest behavior)|
|Danny continues watching baseball||Sadness and resentment||Danny wishes that the relationship had less conflict [Danny is conflict avoidant] and feels resentful that issues are brought up when Danny is trying to relax.|
Ryan and Danny are wrestling with the perpetual problem of how they spend time together and as you can see their difficult feelings and needs are deflected or disguised in the way they talk to each other.
Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, highlights that both good and difficult feelings have been beneficial enough to survive the cut of natural selection. This insight explains that even difficult emotions have an evolutionary value and should be explored as useful, even if they are uncomfortable.
In Ryan and Danny’s case, their lack of emotional intelligence makes it difficult for each of them to see the longing underneath each other’s behaviors.
Because Ryan always complains about the TV and doesn’t share the feelings that influence this complaint, Danny doesn’t get the opportunity to see that Ryan feels lonely and yearns to interact by going on a date or even a walk. Meanwhile, Danny complains that Ryan is a nag, which is driven by feelings of shame about not being a good partner, depriving Ryan of the opportunity to change that inner narrative.
The goal of couples therapy is to create a safe emotional space for partners to risk sharing their vulnerable feelings and narratives so that they can respond to these underlying feelings and meanings in a way that strengthens the relationship. A big piece of couples therapy is exploring and expressing the unexpressed vulnerable feelings.
Your Feelings About Feelings (Meta-Emotions)
The brain is a funny thing. Not only can we feel sad, but we can also feel mad about feeling sad. Then we may feel guilty about feeling sad and try to stop feeling sad. Having feelings about feelings is called meta-emotions. These meta-emotions can block us from expressing certain vulnerable feelings because we were raised to believe that those feelings are bad.
Every single one of us has an emotional heritage that impacts how we express or do not express our feelings. Sometimes an unwillingness to express feelings reflects underlying beliefs, feelings, and prior experiences of emotional expression.