Since 1992, I have worked as a mediator helping people to resolve conflict through constructive conversation. As both a mediator and life coach, I help people express and analyze their feelings and look at difficult situations in different ways. I help them find positive solutions that honor their feelings and needs.
In the course of my work, I regularly observe how hard it is for some people to express their feelings because they are afraid it will result in conflict, and teach them how constructive conflict resolution actually makes things better than conflict avoidance (which pretty much never makes things better). It brings couples closer. It creates intimacy where it otherwise cannot exist. In your love relationship, suppressing your emotions holds back the truth and creates an insurmountable roadblock to intimacy.
Many marital experts agree that the number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict. While some people think that this actually is a way to keep the peace, even if the marriage stays together, suppressing one’s emotions and avoiding conflict it is a surefire way to be unhappy.
I’ve observed families where all members are encouraged to express their feelings, and the parents do not hide their disagreements from their children. The children of such marriages grow up confident and have a healthy attitude towards their emotions. They use communication as a tool for better understanding and better adult relationships. I’ve also observed families where they hide everything from their kids and the rest of the world, hoping that everyone will view them like those TV sitcoms from the 60s. If no one makes waves, everything must be good, right? Well actually, the children of those marriages don’t have a clue about how to express themselves or deal with conflict, so they avoid it, and their marriages are the ones that fail.
As psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach says, when we bury our emotions, we bury them alive. In other words, the feelings still live inside the walls we build around them. They don’t go away. They just ferment.
I’m not encouraging conflict or fights. I’m encouraging partners in a relationship to tell the truth to one another. You can tell the truth about how you are feeling in a way that is not confrontational. You can say, “I’m feeling upset because your mother doesn’t call before she drops in. Can we talk about that?” or “I feel uncomfortable talking about our daughter’s disability with our friends. I’d like to discuss my concerns about that.”
What is the alternative? To just choke back your anger every time your mother-in-law shows up unannounced, and feel resentment towards her and your spouse? Convince yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling that way, and that something is wrong with you? When we deny our feelings, we often do unhealthy things to try not to feel them, like drinking too much or overeating or searching for old girlfriends on the Internet. Holding back your honest feelings is painful and destructive. Nothing positive comes from that, especially over the long term.
When people constantly repress their feelings, they can’t experience true intimacy and connection with their partners. They close themselves up. They may start to feel blank and wonder whether they still love their spouse, then convince themselves that these feelings are normal after 20 years of marriage. That is what happened with their parents, right? Their parents who suppressed their emotions and avoided conflict either got divorced or lived like roommates in a marriage devoid of any passion or even real love. With that lack of connection with your spouse, the hot new guy at the office looks that much more appealing. He wakes up feelings in you that you’ve buried. What happens then? There isn’t much that can create more conflict than having an affair.
As psychologist Julia Colwell explains, truth is what allows safety in a relationship. Safety is to create a space where each partner can say what is going on for him or her. Because when you withhold your feelings, you are really withholding a part of yourself from the relationship. You are weakening your connection.
It is never too late to change this. If you want to live a full, authentic life, and don’t want to settle for a dull, loveless marriage, start being true to yourself by expressing your feelings to your partner in a positive, non-blaming way. It may seem scary at first, but in the long run, it will be much less scary than where you will end up if you keep your feelings to yourself.