When Feelings Aren't Heard (and Bad Things Happen)
Men don’t like to talk about all that touchy feely emotional stuff. Strong men buck it up and take it.
Women, your emotions are too big. To be successful in a man’s world, you need to manage your feelings better.
I often hear these two cliches tossed around in pop culture, but I suppose there must be an element of truth to them, because I hear them in sessions, too. Most of us could think of someone we know that these statements apply to. If we stop to think for a moment longer, we can probably even come up with a time our significant other has said something similar to or about us. And I hate the way that these statements paired together undermine the very heart of any romantic relationship.
I have to give it to our enemy - he’s a crafty one. Whispering these two “truths” into our culture over and over has rewritten the definition of what emotions are. Now, rather than being the expression of our innermost thought life, the portrayal of our truest selves as we respond and react to the world around us, “emotion” has become a four letter word. “Emotion” now means those inconvenient, disorganized, cluttered words we use to explain someone else’s behavior.
And here are the two big problems I see with this shift in ideology:
1) If I’m a dude who isn’t “supposed” to have feelings or a gal who isn’t “supposed” to express them, I don’t have a safe place for my heart to land. And in lieu of heart security, the human brain will seek thrill. I can almost ignore loneliness and vulnerability if I constantly have something new to divert my attention (think about why people fall into addiction of any kind… shopping, Netflix, porn, sex, food, drugs, alcohol).
2) If I’m not allowed to feel or express my own emotions, I will try to manage yours. Mostly, because it’s the only card I have left to play.
These two things taken together will destroy any relationship. Lack of security + thrill seeking + micromanaging = certain death.
And here’s the thing - that makes sense. Most of us don’t go into a relationship looking to hide our true selves, or make our partner hide themselves, or hoping to get caught up in destructive or nagging behaviors. The shift towards these habits is subtle. Normally, conflict or pain arises and we don’t know how to handle it. So we hide, we shame, or we manage. It feels like the most reasonable coping mechanism in the moment. Its the emotional equivalent of fight, flight, or freeze.
Relationships grow based on the information planted in them. We teach other people how to treat us by how we respond to their words and actions. So enough critical comments in response to my emotional sharing teaches me to hold my emotions in. I hold my emotions in long enough, you might feel the need to poke and prod to draw something out… and I might let you. It can feel easier at first. But then I will get resentful as you try to control the things happening inside me. I might voice my resentment, or withdraw; either way, you learn not to ask so much of me. And before we know it, we are caught in a cycle of poor responses, unkind words, silence, and discord where unity and safety should exist. And we aren’t really sure how we got there or what to do.
What makes it even harder to spot in a relationship is the fact that we all bring habits in with us. If you learned growing up that it was safer to suffer silently, or you watched mom manage dad’s overreactions to preserve the peace, or you’re used to silencing criticism with video games or more insta posts, you might not notice this cycle start.
So, what do we do? When we find ourselves caught in this cycle where no one feels heard, or understood, and we are just stuck? Here are a few things to try to get out of that rut.
1) Own your own feelings. The way our society talks about emotion makes this one hard. We like to say “I feel unloved, unappreciated, belittled.” And interestingly, those aren’t emotions, they are statements about someone else’s actions. A more accurate paraphrase of that first statement would be “from my perspective, it looks like you don’t love me.” However, if I say, “I feel sad and lonely when I perceive that you care more about the game than our date night” that sums up what is happening in my heart.
2) Understand that emotions are valid, even if they don’t make sense. Psalm 23:7 tells us that as a man “thinks in his heart, so is he.” We are not our feelings - as higher order beings we have a mind and a spirit that can give influence to our feelings AND our reality is ultimately defined by Jesus. But what I think the Psalmist is trying to convey here is that the thoughts of our hearts (our emotions) color our perceptions of the world around us. In essence, we have them and they effect us. Our emotional experience is valid because we are humans. Created by a feeling God to live with a full expression of emotional intelligence.
3) Remember the volcano. What doesn’t trickle out slowly will erupt. We are not meant to carry heavy burdens of emotion. Proverbs 17:22 reminds us that a “broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” When we hide, stuff, or ignore our emotions, they take a toll on our bodies. Maybe not today. Or tomorrow. But eventually, they always come out. So those big feelings, even the ones that don’t make sense, have to be processed.
4) Be the first one. This part’s hard. We love to say marriage is 50-50. If we each go half way we can meet in the middle. But that’s not what the Bible indicates. Phillipians 2, Matthew 5, and Ephesians 5 all remind us that love is marked by self sacrifice and laying down one’s own rights. Which means that when Paul isn’t actively showing me that he’s my safe place, I open up and let him in. I share of myself honestly, and in turn give him a safe place to be. More often than not, the Spirit moves in those moments to bring reconciliation and unity. (That’s not to say that some of us don’t find ourself in difficult, even toxic, relationships. I think the same principles apply, but we need to use a measure of caution. Where violence or abuse is present, always seek safety first. We all fail to be our partner’s safe place to rest at times, but “at times” is a spectrum, and if you find yourself on the darker end of that, get somewhere safe, and let’s talk.)
Maybe together, one conversation at a time, we can change the narrative from, “Don’t have or talk about your emotions,” to “You have emotions that deserve to be heard.”