Incongruent Emotions Harm Relationships

I recently saw a male client who was upset about his wife’s possible affair. She had been staying out drinking on weeknights until 1 am, leaving him with the kids. For years she had also been under-functioning in the home, so that he had to do most of the childcare and chores. He complained that she would leave her clothes on the floor all the time despite his requests not to, was constantly late for events, and was undependable in many ways.

I listened to his mouth and words make this list of complaints. He was tearful but tried not to cry  throughout the session. He seemed to be struggling to keep his emotions in check. Each time I ask him how he was feeling, he dismissed his emotions or changed the subject or said his wife is “not that bad” or “I don’t want to make it seem like she does this all the time.” 

It left me wondering: What are his real emotions, beliefs and thoughts? I’m sure if he observed himself neutrally, he would have had the same question. 

Looking at his tears, you might have suspected he was sad. Hearing his words, you might have guessed he was mildly angry. He said the situation was not that concerning to him, but then he would bring the same complaints up over and over again, so you might conclude he really was concerned about her behaviors. Add in his denials, changing opinions, and vague language and, overall, you would be very confused as to his real feelings and opinions. 

When a person has incongruent emotions — crying when he is angry — it is confusing. Both to a therapist and to his partner. As with a stoplight with both red and green lights lit, the partner does not know how to react. 

The human brain has a well-developed system for assessing emotions in other people. Our non-verbal skills evolved millions of years before our verbal skills did, so we are much faster and more competent at figuring out what is unsaid. 

But when the emotions and body language do not match the words, it leads to confusion at best, arguments and distancing at worse. 

People I call “Self-Blamers” in Self-Acceptance Psychology are the most likely to use an incongruent style of expressing themselves. They want to avoid conflict because they are eager for the other person to like them. Perhaps it is a style of communication they learned in childhood.  

They also dislike experiencing shame, so, in an empathic move, they also try to protect their partner from shaming experiences. So they placate and please in an attempt to decrease conflict. 

Or their partner may be an “Other-Blamer” who tends to lash out in anger at any form of criticism, no matter how accurate it is. So the Self-Blamer has learned to be tentative about his criticism, or has learned to moderate his critical words with placating, submissive crying and dissembling. 

Unfortunately, this pattern of communicating merely tells the Other-Blamer wife that she has succeeded in dominating her husband, succeeded in keeping him from shaming her, succeeded in keeping him from holding her accountable for her wrongful actions. His submissive style of communicating has alerted her that in some measure he is shouldering the blame for her behaviors. 

Ultimately, this pattern of communicating leads to distancing in the marriage. The husband learns it is futile to express his legitimate criticisms so he gives up caring and pulls away emotionally. 

The solution is prompt, direct, assertive communication with congruent emotions. If you are angry, be angry and use words, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and emotions that express that. If you are sad, cry and express your hurt. But don’t use tears to placate a partner and avoid conflict when you are really just angry. 

My goal in therapy with this man, and others like him, is to encourage honest assessment of his own feelings and help him gain the assertiveness to express himself promptly and directly. I work to help him understand the roots of his fear of conflict in childhood and in his innate need for approval.  

Possibly, if he had better self-acceptance, his need to placate and please his wife would be reduced to a healthy level. His self-image would not depend on her approval. 

The Price Tag Incident: Conflict Avoidance as a Protection Against Shame

price tag with copy space isolated on white

A few nights ago when I got undressed I discovered that I had a price tag hanging off the back of my shirt. It was clearly visible all day long to 10 different clients as they walked behind me to my office,  yet not one person said anything. 

I was first mildly embarrassed for a minute — although I would have been mortified for days before I became self-accepting!

Yet my next thought was of those people who saw the tag and said nothing. I learned a lot about how they handle shame. Yes, shame again shows up as driving so much of human behavior. 

Certainly, it can be difficult to point out something embarrassing about another person. People have difficulty criticizing others because they do not want to make others feel uncomfortable. Not speaking up seems polite.

My clients wanted to protect me from a shaming experience by not pointing out my flaw — the forgotten price tag. They did not know that to me it would not have been shaming, but rather helpful. I would have appreciated being told about the price tag sooner, rather than not at all. 

By their (lack of) behavior my clients also showed me about their difficulty tolerating shame. 

They know all too well the pain of this emotion and experience. So when they see someone else doing something embarrassing they have difficulty saying anything largely because they themselves don’t like the feeling of shame. 

Conflict avoidance can often be about protecting someone from shame due to your own fear of being shamed. 

A common scenario I hear in therapy is clients who have difficulty breaking up with someone they’ve been dating who is clearly not right for them. They don’t enjoy the shame of being rejected and they imagine that the other person does not like this either. So they avoid the conflict of rejecting this person, and continue to date far longer than they should. Of course, now they have a very big job. Wouldn’t it have been easier to reject this person after the first or 10th date, rather than after 6 months? 

How would you handle conflict differently if you could tolerate shame with equanimity? What would you do if you could be certain the other person could also tolerate shame well?