There are many differences in how emotions are expressed. While there are no ‘right’ ways to express emotion, often one partner may feel very uneasy with how the other expresses emotions. There is also considerable variance in the capacities of any two individuals to respond to emotion – both their own and that of others.
One person may be quite comfortable in expressing anger, for example, even becoming quite animated. If a partner is unused to this, the tone of voice may appear threatening. Tears can be experienced by a partner as manipulative because they trigger guilt; they can be experienced by the person who is crying, as weak, dangerous. One member of a couple may have a sense of humour that is misunderstood by the other. Jealousy, fear, sexual excitement, unhappiness, boredom are all emotions which may trigger something in the other, possibly leading to misunderstandings.
Sometimes a person may be unable to contact their own emotional world. Yet this inability may be experienced by the partner as withholding.
Emotions can trigger memories from past experience, childhood, trauma, earlier partnerships. These then may become entangled in the new or developed partnership. When this occurs, and it happens in most relationships at some time, the person experiencing the difficulty is usually unaware of the origin of their reaction.
Emotions come with physiological reactions – we feel them in our bodies. For some, this is experienced as normal and healthy; for others it leads to uneasiness, and they may feel threatened by the sense of the other’s arousal. For example, if the couple is arguing about housework, one may become very aroused by frustration and the other may respond by shutting down. Learning to understand these differences is an important part of the developing relationship. Couples can also help each other to develop emotional capacity/intelligence.
Hidden emotional reactions cause many conflicts. But the capacity of an individual to internalise (keeping something unexpressed) or externalise (express) is both genetically influenced and impacted on by life experience.
There are definitely both healthy and unhealthy ways to express any emotion. To burst into loud laughter at something a partner says or does could be explosive – or a trigger for the partner to laugh at themselves, diffusing many a tense situation. Rules of expression are very situationally determined. However, both anger and tears can be expressed in ways which violate the other’s safety or rights.
Emotions tell us something. While men and women may differ in the way they express emotion, it is important not to stereotype these expressions.