How to Overcome Emotional Repression in Your Relationship

Rear view of two women sitting on pier embracing. What feelings were denied you as a child?

Did your parents or caregivers say:

  • “I don’t ever want to hear those words again” in response to your anger?
  • “I’ll give you something to cry about” when you felt sad?
  • “Don’t touch yourself there” when you experienced pleasure?
  • “You don’t really feel that, do you?”—denying your experience altogether?

While some feelings may have been allowed, we’ve all experienced the discomfort of others around our more “negative” emotional expressions. This can be especially problematic in romantic relationships. In his book Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix, PhD explores “forbidden feelings” and the concept of repression. He writes: “Your angry feelings, your sexual feelings, and a host of other ‘antisocial’ thoughts and feelings were pushed deep inside of you and were not allowed to see the light of day.”

Hendrix acknowledges that the rules of emotional expression differ between men and women. Starting in early childhood, what’s “allowed” for boys and what’s “allowed” for girls is clear.

He notes that, for boys, emotional expression or the expression of empathy is perceived as weakness or fear. Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged toward these tender exchanges.

Males learn to cut off their own emotional experiences, which, in turn, impacts their ability to express themselves clearly and to develop empathy for partners. The cutoff often looks like withdrawal, leaving the more emotionally expressive partner to chase after the distant one.

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In my work with both heterosexual and same-sex couples, I have seen these patterns play out repeatedly. Men and women repress their feelings based on a host of unique factors.

Factors that influence emotional repression date back to early childhood. These can include influential personalities in the person’s family of origin, cultural and religious background, definitions of masculinity and femininity, trauma, the political climate, and more.

Some of my most meaningful work with a person occurs when they learn how to undo their own emotional repression. Here are some of the steps we take to help them emotionally evolve.

1. Learn Emotional Language

When repressed enough, partners lose their ability to retrieve the language of emotions. Evidence of this may include responses such as “I don’t know” or “I can’t describe it” when a person is asked how they feel.

We start small, reviewing the six most basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, love, and surprise. But knowing the feelings is not always enough to name them in the moment.

Healthy emotional communication calls for being both a giver and a receiver. Reciprocation of emotional expression provides the richest environment for intimacy to grow.

2. Work from the Outside In

Feelings register in the body. We typically feel our emotions in our throats, behind our eyes, in our torsos (including back and chest), in our bellies, and sometimes in our legs, arms, hands, and feet. Knowing the sensations of the body helps you connect your experience to the learned emotional language. Heat in your cheeks might connect to anger, a lump in your throat might indicate sadness, loss of breath may connect to surprise, and butterflies in the belly or ice-cold palms may mean fear.

Notice your reactions to conversations and experiences, pay attention to your body, and begin to make the connections for yourself.

3. Verbalize the Feeling

Once you tune into the sensation and connect it to the relevant feeling word, you can verbalize the feeling by sharing with your partner. You can say, for example, “I’m aware that I have butterflies in my stomach and that I feel scared,” or, “I can feel my heart pounding right now; I know I’m angry and I need time to cool off.”

Being able to verbalize your feelings gives you and your partner a chance to communicate about what’s fueling them and why they may be uncomfortable.

Conclusion

When you complete all three steps, you’re overcoming emotional repression. You’re no longer detaching from your feelings. You’re no longer denying yourself the right to speak up about your experience. You’re allowing others to know you more deeply.

Of course, there are other feelings words, such as disappointment, loss, confusion, bewilderment, hope, excitement, and more. But for anyone who has a lifetime of emotional repression, the six most basic human emotions often capture enough to name the feeling adequately. As you become more habitual in sensing, naming, and verbalizing your emotions, consider expanding your emotional language to describe how you feel.

For those of you on the receiving end, check in with yourselves. Make sure you want what is offered. Anger, sadness, and fear are generally harder to receive than love, joy, and surprise. Sometimes, people tell me they want their partners to express themselves more fully, but when they do, the receivers struggle to take in what their partners say.

Healthy emotional communication calls for being both a giver and a receiver. Reciprocation of emotional expression provides the richest environment for intimacy to grow. If you are struggling with this, either individually or as a couple, make an appointment with a licensed counselor.

Reference:

Hendrix, H. (2008). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.

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  • 2 comments
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  • theresa18

    theresa18

    April 18th, 2018 at 11:53 AM

    i grew up in a family that wouldn’t allow me to have feelings. i still remember some of the things my dad would tell me to try to get me to shut up. what’s a little girl supposed to do in a situation like that?

  • Wm Trekker

    Wm Trekker

    January 8th, 2019 at 6:06 AM

    This is a brilliant, insightful article, while remaining brief, easily comprehended, and user friendly.

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