How To Express Your Emotions Without Your Partner Shutting Down

Do you ever feel like your emotions come upon you like an emotional tidal wave? Where they feel so overwhelming that you struggle to express yourself in a way that people can receive it?

And while this can feel distressing, it’s even more upsetting when we are trying to express our emotional experience and sense that our partner is cutting us off or walking away. This further aggravates our emotions and leaves us feeling invalidated and often unloved.

So, what can you do to both ensure that you express yourself (without bottling any feelings) while still creating a space where your partner is open to receiving your emotional expression? We’ll discuss it here. 

Know your dance

As a therapist, I practice Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT. Sue Johnson created this treatment and is all about helping couples understand their communication style.

Often, the way we connect to one another (or push against one another) is due to our emotional experience. Whether we feel sad, angry, or disappointed, among other emotions, we typically want to share our emotional experience with our partner.

This is a good sign — when we love someone, we lean in (even when we are angry with them). The worst sign is when there is a lack of emotion, or apathy, as it gives us no motivation to draw near to our partner. 

The challenge is that we can sometimes display our emotions in a way that can be distancing to our partner, often leading our partner to feel defensive or attacked.

Thus, couples often take different roles where one is the pursuer (the expressor of emotions), and the other is the withdrawer.

Consider this is in your relationship and think about the different roles that you take when either of you expresses emotion in the relationship. 

Name the experience

Once you know your role in the dance, you can think about how you and your partner enact different roles when either of you expresses emotion. We often perform these steps without thinking.

Instead, begin to name your experience. Thus, when you start to share your emotions, say to your partner, “I feel like you are pulling away, and it makes me feel (insert your emotional experience).” Invite your partner to use an “I” statement to share how they are feeling in return. 

When you begin to observe the dance happening between the two of you, the power of the argument or the defenses tends to dwindle. Ideally, you can also begin to move past your anger and name your other emotions as well, including sadness, disappointment, or fear.

And even when these emotions feel overwhelming (to share and to receive), it’s important to remember that expressing emotions comes from a place of caring—we are ultimately seeking connection with our partner when we express ourselves.

It’s much worse to hold our emotions in or to not feel any at all as this can show a sense of indifference in the relationship.

Notice your tone

While words can carry their weight, it’s often the tone that can send our partner running.

When we turn to yelling or raging especially, our partner can have a reaction that prevents them from actually hearing what you are trying to say. If you struggle with your emotional expression, where it feels out of control for you, start to experiment with different levels of intensity.

See how your partner responds differently when you express the same emotion, just at a lower level. You will likely find that they can hear you better and engage more fully when you’re not at a level 10. 

If you find that your emotions feel like they are at a fever pitch and it’s hard for you to come down, see if you can process your feelings a bit before turning to your partner.

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Can you write in a journal? Go for a run? Taking some time for yourself to understand what you are feeling and begin exploring why you feel it can give you a head start before you incorporate your partner into the mix.

Consider your partner’s response

Just as we need practice on how to effectively express our emotions, our partners often need practice on how they respond.

If you find that your partner struggles to listen empathetically or has such a strong emotional experience in return that both of you are getting activated, it’s important to build insight into this.

This is part of knowing the dance, and the steps each of you takes,when strong emotions come into the mix. Consider gently offering feedback to your partner about what you need when you’re expressing emotions.

Your partner cannot read your mind or directly know your needs. Informing them of what will help most will allow each of you to express your feelings in a way that you both feel heard and loved.

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