How hiding your emotions affects your relationship

David Ludden

If you’re playing poker, you need to suppress all expressions of emotion. After all, poker strategy lies not in the cards but in the reading of others’ faces.

Generally speaking, people are pretty good at reading the emotions of others, particularly by paying attention to their facial expressions, body posture, and vocal intonations. Expressive suppression, then, is an attempt to hide your expressions of emotion from another person.

Expressive Suppression and Conflict

There are situations where expressive suppression is advantageous. But according to University of Auckland (New Zealand) psychologist Eri Sasaki and colleagues, hiding your emotions from your intimate partner wreaks havoc on your relationship.

One way some people deal with conflict is to put on a poker face, concealing all feelings from the other person. If your boss is berating you for something that’s not even your fault, you might want to suppress your emotions—at least if you want to keep your job. But when you’re having a disagreement with your partner, you need to let your emotions show 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 properly. This means expressing appropriate levels of emotion, because successfully resolving a conflict is all about gaining new insights into how your partner feels about a particular issue, and vice versa. Thus, when you try to keep your cool during the heat of the moment, you’re disrupting an important communication process.

Expressive Suppression as a “Weak Link”

In a study they recently published in the journal Emotion, Sasaki and colleagues proposed that a couple’s regular use of expressive suppression, especially during conflicts, would be associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Specifically, they suggested that expressive suppression would be a “weak link,” meaning that even if just one of the partners habitually suppressed their emotional expressions, both partners would feel less satisfaction in the relationship.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers examined data from 427 heterosexual couples in committed, long-term relationships. Each partner responded separately to a questionnaire that measured their ability to regulate their emotions, especially their use of expressive suppression as well as their ability to use cognitive reappraisal to reevaluate 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 habitually held back on theirs. Thus, expressive suppression is a “weak link” in a relationship, meaning that it only takes one to make both partners unhappy.

Dealing with Your Partner’s Expressive Suppression—and Your Own

So, what do you do if your partner shuts down emotionally during conflicts? One finding from this study suggests that cognitive reappraisal could help you deal with your partner’s expressive suppression.

Instead of assuming that your partner is intentionally being cold toward you, you need to consider whether there’s something in their personal history that causes them to suppress their emotions during conflicts. You may be able to work this out through warm and supportive conversations about this issue, but it may take therapy for both of you to gain sufficient insight.

Sasaki and colleagues point out that expressive suppression isn’t only disruptive during conflicts. Even in our day-to-day interactions with our significant other, we’re constantly adjusting our behaviors as we read their expressions of emotion.

A hearty smile from our partner is more encouraging than any words that can be spoken. This is because words may be insincere, but facial expressions are generally honest. Likewise, a pouting frown from our significant other motivates us to mend our ways far more effectively than nagging does. After all, we respond empathetically to emotional expressions but defensively to verbal criticism.

In sum, it’s time to put away your poker face and lay your cards on the table as far as your relationship goes. If you feel uncomfortable expressing emotions, try to gain insight into the reason for this, perhaps with the help of a counselor. Rather than protecting you from harm, your expressive suppression is keeping you from enjoying the fullness of an intimate relationship with another person.

Likewise, if your partner is cold as ice even in the most heated moment, try to understand what it is in their past that causes them to react this way. If you show authentic concern, you may in time be able to break through their frozen façade.

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David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. As the author of two books and a popular blog for Psychology Today, he mainly writes about communication in relationships and the things couples can do to have more satisfying interactions.

Lawrenceville, GA

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