Could suppressing negative emotions actually harm relationships more than help them? Holding back, reducing, or inhibiting ongoing emotions is known in the research world as “emotional suppression.” And we’ve all experienced emotional suppression. If you have ever hidden a worry to avoid worrying someone else or suppressed negative emotions that could lead someone to judge or dislike you, then you have experienced emotional suppression. Emotional suppression is especially common in close relationships. Unfortunately, this common occurrence can interfere with the development of intimate relationships relationships in the following ways:
It can decrease intimacy.
Emotional expression (the opposite of suppression) has been shown to be an essential part of developing closeness and intimacy, and unexpressive partners have often been found to seem disinterested, uncaring, and distant.
It’s harder to be authentic.
Who wants to feel fake in a relationship? Individuals who suppress emotions also tend to feel less authentic or true to themselves. Research has suggested that feeling “fake” in relationships leads to more distance between partners and less relationship satisfaction.
It decreases marital quality for newlyweds.
In addition to the research that suggests that emotional suppression is linked to less social support, less social satisfaction, and less closeness to others, scholars at the Univeristy of Italy have recently found that emotional suppression is also harmful in the beginning stages of marriage relationships.
So what does this mean for newlyweds — or for anyone in a relationship? The following suggestions can help you avoid emotional suppression without scaring, hurting, or withholding from your partner:
Recognize your feelings for what they are.
Trying to avoid or suppress negative emotions doesn’t make them disappear. In reality, hiding negative emotions often creates more intense feelings and can lead to resentment. So, instead of hiding negative emotions when you experience them, try to recognize what you are feeling. As you practice, it will be easier for you to recognize when you are mad, sad, scared, surprised, ashamed, or joyful.
Talk openly about your experiences.
Once you feel that you are capable of talking about your emotions in a safe, non-attacking way, communicate with your partner. Tell your partner what emotions you have felt and focus on your own experience. This will keep you from building resentment and also give your partner the chance to understand and empathize with you.
People can sense when you are holding back information, so don’t just tell part of the story. Recognize that negative emotions are part of the human experience — and don’t let fear of being judged keep you from sharing what you really feel. As you disclose your feelings to your partner, you give them a chance to identify with experiences that they have had and you can ultimately feel closer.
For more tips on how to have build stronger relationships, take the RELATE assessment today.
Written by Bonnie, masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, PhD.