Why would sharing feelings make for a closer relationship and why does emotional vulnerability matter so much? The short answer – accepting vulnerability creates safety, closeness and connection in couple relationships.
When we share the things that are so scary, vulnerable and personal to us and there is someone on the other side to tell us that we are still accepted, loved and safe with them, there isn’t anything that can make us feel more loved. It is the emotional equivalent of the ‘trust fall’ test, where you fall backwards with your eyes shut and arms crossed knowing that someone is behind you ready to catch you.
Nothing fuels connection more than trust and safety through sharing vulnerable feelings, and yet it seems like so many couples struggle to know how to express their feelings without it turning into a bigger issue or even a fight.
The catch is that taking that first leap of trust can be incredibly debilitating and downright terrifying for some. There are many reasons couples can have difficulty sharing how they feel with each other. The list below is a compilation of some of the most common struggles I see in couples therapy and marriage counselling.
Differing Meta Emotions
What are Meta emotions you ask? In short, Meta emotions are really how we feel about our feelings. Some people are comfortable with their sadness or vulnerability, while others feel that this is a sign of weakness and should be avoided at all costs. This disconnect is commonly found in couples therapy.
Your philosophy on managing feelings will largely determine how or if you bring up difficult issues to your partner. One partner might find anger to be just an expression of feeling upset, while the other person can experience anger as scary and overwhelming, which might even cause them to flood and withdrawal.
If you aren’t comfortable with your sadness, or your partners sadness, there is a high likelihood that you will withhold difficult feelings in your relationship and are not having the vulnerable conversations that build closeness.
It is not uncommon to avoid sharing feelings of sadness with your partner in fear of bringing the person you love ‘down’ with you. However, this can be a missed opportunity. Sharing your sadness can open your partner up to not only embracing your feelings but also expressing their own emotions. Often seen in a healthy relationship, this in turn, can build closeness.
Lacking Emotional Awareness
Emotional awareness is when we understand our feelings and why we are having them. Sometimes partners don’t share because they don’t try to understand why they feel the way they do or determine the source of their emotional vulnerability.
Why would someone avoid their own emotions? Well, they might know that something is bothering them, but don’t spend the time to put words to their feelings and instead use that time to push their feelings out of sight and out of mind.
For people who are natural problem solvers, spending time in their emotional state feels overwhelming or useless because they like to work with what they can solve. Sometimes feelings can’t be solved, they just need to be felt.
In this case, avoidance seems easier and makes more sense. This inhibits them from exploring the deeper meaning or trigger behind what’s bothering them and results in a lack of emotional awareness and sharing with their partner. This keeps the other partner guessing as to what’s going on in their partner’s inner world. Over time this can sadly lead to marital disconnect and demise.
The ultimate challenge is that, even though you might not pay attention to your feelings, they have to go somewhere and when suppressed can come out in the form of anger or anxiety. Emotions are like a balloon, if you puff into a balloon over time it will expand and get larger and larger. The best way to stop the balloon from popping is to let the air out over time.
Negative Childhood Experiences with Emotions
Our meta emotions are highly influenced by childhood experiences. Some people find it difficult to bring up their feelings because their childhood has taught them that they aren’t safe to share their feelings, their feelings are wrong or bad, or possibly that only bad things come from sharing their emotions. This can happen in both subtle and obvious ways.
Consider a child approaching their parents or family members with an issue or heavy emotion, if the parent tells the child that they don’t care, to stop crying, that crying is for babies, or dismiss their feelings, they are essentially rejecting their children at a vulnerable time. While children are trying to learn what feelings they are having and why, instead of having an adult that helps them make sense of their feelings, they are punished for it.
Ultimately, children can learn they can’t share their feelings with those who are supposed to love them and make them feel safe. This message can, and often does, transfer into adulthood relationships particularly with conflict resolution.
We tend to find comfort in familiarity and sometimes we find a partner that is very similar to the way our parents handled our feelings. If we had parents that were very distant and dismissing, and you find yourself a partner that is similar, you might inherently know not to express your feelings.
The way emotions are handled in our family largely shape how we handle emotions in general and especially in romantic relationships.
Protection, Vulnerability Avoidance & Safety
This really leads to the core of the challenge as to why it’s so hard to open up about our feelings. When we share our feelings we make ourselves feel vulnerable because we are being fully open – we are showing our partners who we are – period. When we share feelings we can leave ourselves vulnerable to our partners acceptance or rejection of us.
What if my partner doesn’t understand my feelings? What if they get mad? What if they use it against me? What if they lose respect for me? What if they see me as weak? What if they misunderstand what i’m trying to say? What if they tell me i’m wrong?
When we share hard feelings we are doing the emotional equivalent of exposing our neck. To be told we are wrong for thinking and feeling the way we do by our partner can actually lead to a relationship ‘trauma‘ or ‘injury’, often something a therapist sees when works with couples in couples therapy.
Not sharing feelings can ultimately be a form of protection, we keep ourselves safe by keeping our inner world to ourselves. The downside is that we also keep ourselves closed off to the point of not developing meaningful relationships.
Old Patterns Within The Relationship
Sometimes couples can get stuck in a pattern with their partner where one person becomes the emotional purser and the other partner becomes the with-drawer, creating a painful and sometimes destructive pattern.
If your relationship history has been an explosive one, with shouting, calling names or being critical it can become even more challenging to speak to your partner about your feelings. A toxic culture in the relationship has long been established.
In the situation where you take the vulnerable leap and share the feelings you might have otherwise felt safer keeping to yourself, and your partner becomes defensive or critical, its highly unlikely that you would make such an attempt again.
I can’t help but notice that there seems to be a difference between the way men and women process information. Men tend to be more focused on problem solving and solutions, while women tend to be more focused on the emotional processing and deepening of bonds. While this is not true across the board, it seems to be a pattern.
In a couple relationship where one person is more focused on problem solving and/or solutions and the other wants to talk about and processing feelings, we can come across a challenging dynamic where couples have different goals. This can often be a source of conflict.
Essentially, one partner tries to problem solve the others feelings, leading to frustration, feelings of dismissal and a general sense of not being heard. This is a very common problem couples bring into couples therapy.
Conclusion – Change Is Possible
Awareness of the problem can be the first step in change, and when you know better you can do better. Often times people don’t realize that their emotional distancing and lack of vulnerability becomes a much bigger problem over time. People just tend to work with what they know and find ways to adapt that work for them and unfortunately they might not see it at the time, but the safety of being closed off overtime eats away at the relationship.
The quality of a relationship can be directly measured by how much you feel you can share your feelings with your partner. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to keep any of your feelings from your partner. The more you feel your partner knows you and accepts you, the closer and healthier your relationship will be. If you don’t feel you are able to share feelings in your relationship, this can be a major red flag and a sign that you should seek couples therapy.
If you feel an emotional distance with your partner and find that it is difficult for your partner, or you, to share the more meaningful and deeper feelings in your relationship it is time to consider couples therapy.