How do you feel about feelings? This may seem a strange question, but how we view emotions factors into and influences our communication with our partners. Sometimes couples feel like they are on separate roads emotionally when it comes to differences in feeling and expressing emotions like sadness, anger, affection, pride, and happiness – to name a few. This leads to the question, how can couples merge these differences in a way that leads to better managing the couple’s emotional life? It starts with understanding the emotional legacy each person is bringing into the relationship. In my previous blog Family Legacies: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly (March 21, 2009) I discuss the importance of thinking about what we have learned from our families of origin about relationships and how this works its way into our own relationships today: So what have we learned about emotions?
I recall a husband proudly proclaiming that he came from a “strong family” emotionally. He spoke of how during his grandmother’s funeral his mother remained unemotional and advised her children to “be strong”; reminding them that crying showed weakness. This man, understandably, struggled with supporting his wife when her mother died. This was a very painful time for her and their marriage.
In the families of couples I work with where there is a history of untreated addiction, often times I hear that emotions like grief, anger, and sadness were not tolerated. Denial of the addiction usually means denial of feelings. The message in these families is: “There is no reason to feel upset, scared, or angry; and if you do feel anything like that, there is really something wrong with you!”
Individuals from a family where there has been verbal or physical violence are likely to struggle with anger. Sometimes the emotional experience of anger in the relationship touches off intense fear and withdrawal. Other times, individuals from these families struggle with managing anger, flying off the handle and flooding easily with overwhelming rage.
In some families the norm is to not express gratitude or appreciation for behavior that is expected. Growing up in these families leads to real challenges for partners in their own relationships to support each other with kind words and expressions of fondness. We know from the research that couples who are able to notice and comment on what they appreciate about their partner have stronger friendships – this dynamic correlates with sex and passion in the marriage.
We are not doomed by are past, but we may need to explore what that past has been when it comes to expressing emotions. One approach is to discuss with your partner what their experience was in their family of different emotions.
Consider the following questions for each of the emotions listed below. What was your experience in your family of (emotion)? How did your parents respond to each other’s (emotion)? What is it like to experience (emotion) now in our relationship?
Insert the following emotions into each of these questions (one at a time):
This can be a challenging dialogue, but if you haven’t had this conversation, it can lead to greater understanding of an important part of the relationship: emotions and how they are managed.