We all hide our emotions from time to time, and that isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we need a chance to regroup and get some perspective on our emotions before confronting another person about the issue at hand. When this happens, we use different coping mechanisms to disguise our emotions.
Many people are quite good at this, which means that even the people who are closest to them don’t know what they’re actually feeling. In fact, a recent study by psychologists from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that even if a couple has been happily together for a long time, it’s still hard for them to tell what their partner is really feeling.
The researchers studied 120 heterosexual couples attending colleges in Northern California who ranged in age from 18 to 25 years old. Each couple had been dating on an exclusive basis for more than six months, with some together as long as four years.
It turns out that if we don’t want to talk about our feelings, we’re really good at hiding them. The researchers found that we tend to underestimate how often our partners are masking their emotions or altering their perspectives, and if you are happy in your relationship, you may have an even harder time accurately reading emotions.
“Happier couples see their partners in a more positive light than do less happy couples,” said Lameese Eldesouky, lead author of “Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Accuracy and Bias in Emotion Regulation Trait Judgments,” published in the Journal of Personality, told the Source.
Coping mechanisms people use to regulate emotions provide few visual cues, making them tricky to detect. Suppression can be characterized as being stoic (a.k.a. pretending like it’s not affecting you), and reappraisal is making a positive shift in perspective.
We might be able to tell when someone is being stoic, but it’s certainly not easy to read someone when someone is looking for silver linings.
“People tend to underestimate how often a partner is suppressing emotions and to overestimate a partner’s ability to see the bright side of an issue that might otherwise spark negative emotions,” said Eldesouky.
Hearing that your beloved might be hiding emotions from you may raise red flags in your mind, but this control over to outward expression of our feelings is actually an important and useful tool that everyone uses (yes, you).
Emotion regulation is important in relationships—it helps us take a step back and understand the other person’s needs. It also can help us determine how to modify our behavior in the future to make out interactions with our partner smoother.
Although suppression and reappraisal are perfectly normal, it’s important to find the right balance if you’re in it for the long haul. Overusing suppression and withholding emotions too much can negatively impact a relationship down the road, while sharing emotions with your partner can alleviate the burden and foster trust.
It may sound like a cliché, but communication truly is the key when it comes to feelings. If you suspect that your partner is suppressing their feelings to a point where it is affecting your interactions, maybe it’s time to start a conversation. And if you’ve never had a talk like this before, you might not know where to start.
Here are a few tips from Psychology Today:
1. Ask if they would like to talk, and agree on a time that works for both of you.
2. Be open about your intent, such as “I hope we can become more comfortable talking to each other about what we’re feeling.”
3. Create a welcoming, non-judgmental space for your partner. Don’t get discouraged if they aren’t ready to talk yet; stay patient, appreciative, and positive!
4. Empower yourself to not place blame. Be there for your partner while seeking to understand their point of view.
No one is a mind reader, which is why it is important to be truthful about what you’re feelings—especially if they are “emotional.” Eldesouky and her team discovered that if people regularly express their emotions, their partners are less likely to believe that they have any feelings that aren’t expressed.
Couples may not be able to always know that their sweetheart is thinking, but by expressing emotions in a constructive way, they can strengthen their relationship.
Want more tips on building healthy, loving relationships? Check out these articles:
Deidre Gomm is originally from America’s Dairyland and is currently settled in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. At Twin Cities PBS she coordinates office necessities and has a knack for changing the toner. On a typical day you can find her biking around St. Paul, playing with her foster cats and scoping out new board games.