Keeping in Touch with Feelings


It’s one of the most important things in a marriage. Yet many husbands and wives are emotionally tongue-tied.

I’d always thought I grew up in a family where a lot of sharing went on and where feelings were out in the open. Then, in graduate school, I married and I discovered that in all too many ways I still fit into the stereotype of the American male. I wanted to come across as aggressive, objective, and rational. Showing feelings openly, I thought, would be a sign of weakness or lack of control.

Yet there was plenty to make me feel unsure in the adjustments to marriage and to graduate school. As the pressures mounted, I did the worst possible thing. I clammed up.

I didn’t realize that silence communicates too; my wife, going through her own adjustments, became very uncomfortable and anxious because she didn’t know what was causing my feelings. She could only wonder: Did I hate her cooking? Was school getting me down? Was I homesick for my own family? Did I regret marrying her? She also wondered why she was so powerless to do anything about my feelings. She was happy; things were going well for her. But what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I happy?

We were both pretty tense by the time I finally got up the courage to tell her what the pressures of school were doing to me. Then I discovered she was so receptive it was easy for me to talk to her. When I realized how she’d been feeling, I was overwhelmed. I told her how happy I was with her and our marriage and asked her not to take my moods personally when I was feeling anxious or discouraged.

Once she realized what was going on inside me, she understood. And both of us realized that the best thing she could do was just listen. I needed to feel supported in dealing with my own feelings, but she no longer felt that she had to take responsibility for changing my negative feelings into positive ones.

In some ways, that moment of true understanding was the beginning of our marriage—of being so close that we are truly one. Closeness comes on a continuum. We have “superficial” encounters with a clerk or service station attendant; we have “casual” relationships with a neighbor or someone who works in our building; we have a “close” relationship with a bishop, a friend, or a trusted colleague; we move into “involved” relationships when we are consistently sharing feelings honestly within our families or with close friends. But “intimacy,” a most profound and tender kind of closeness, is comparatively rare.

In intimate relationships, we share feelings we normally keep hidden—doubts and fears, joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams. Most people marry out of a hunger for intimacy, but few achieve it. In fact, I feel that a great deal of suffering and loneliness in relationships can be traced back to a lack of intimacy.

Intimacy, then, means sharing feelings. My emotions are the key to me. Behind my behavior lies my emotions how I feel about things shapes my actions in the future. Since I interpret my experience on an emotional level, being in touch with my feelings provides my most important information about my real self. My emotional reactions tell me about my needs, my self-image, my values, my sensitivities, my fears, and my strengths. If I can recognize my feelings and ask, “Why did that comment make me anxious?” or “Why does playing with my children make me feel so good?” I am learning to know myself on a profound level.

If I can share those emotions with others, I am sharing myself. And the rewards—in feeling understood and accepted—are powerful. Another reward is in freedom; covering up emotions literally drains physical energy and causes tension.

Elder Marvin J. Ashton, commenting on the importance of communication in families, pointed out that “communication is more than a sharing of words. It is the wise sharing of emotions, feelings, and concerns. It is the sharing of oneself totally.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 52.)

If sharing feelings is so important, why don’t people do it more often?—especially when I think all of us yearn for that kind of closeness. I remember one woman saying wistfully, “We’ve been married twenty-two years and I’d really like to know my husband. But he’ll never tell me how he’s feeling.” She is not the only one I’ve heard that comment from.

One reason that wistful plea has remained unanswered for twenty-two years is that intimacy also carries with it a terrifying risk. Since sharing feelings reveals so much about us, we become vulnerable. What if we are misunderstood or rejected if we share feelings?

This is a real fear, and sometimes it is justified. I know a woman who wanted to be closer to her husband, so she shared with him how hurt she felt when he was sarcastic about her in public. After this revelation, whenever this immature husband ever wanted to hurt her out of spite, he would purposely make fun of her when others were present. The toll on relationships and self-esteem in such a situation is a heavy one.

Another reason we hesitate to share our feelings comes from the expectations we pick up from others. No one is more emotionally honest than a baby; but as that baby grows up, he learns that “big boys don’t cry” and she learns that “you aren’t pretty when you pout.” Parents must teach their children to control their emotions, but instead they all too frequently teach them to repress their emotions. The delicate balance is to learn how to acknowledge emotions and to express them appropriately.

That was the situation my wife and I were in when we realized what my cover-up was doing to our own relationship. We’d both learned pretty clearly what society expected from us, and it has taken serious attention to keep us feeling close. Please believe me: it’s worth it. I know it’s worth it for our marriage, and other couples that I’ve worked with have expressed the same feelings: “We talked about things we’d never told each other before.” “I felt more warmth and love for my wife than I’ve felt for years.”

Here are some suggestions on how to deal with our feelings and share them more effectively:

1. Accept the concept that feelings are honorable. We don’t need to feel guilty about having feelings.

2. Learn to identify them properly and express them appropriately. We need to let our rational selves mediate so that we aren’t unleashing our emotions in an immature way. Thinking also helps us identify which emotions we should share openly in a healthy way and which ones we should handle privately.

3. Express emotions by describing them. For example: “Right now I’m feeling frustrated about my problems at work” or “I feel so discouraged about the way the children have been acting lately; I would really like to talk to you about it” or “I feel so much more relaxed about the way I’m handling my Sunday School class now.”

If you haven’t been used to doing this, it might be helpful to follow a simple model: When _____ happens, I feel _____ because _____. For example, if a husband neglects to call his wife when he is going to be late getting home, his wife will probably be upset. She could focus those feelings of anger outwards: “You’re the most inconsiderate person I know! The least you could do is call!” Or she could describe her feelings: “When you don’t call if you’re going to be late, I feel anxious and frightened because I’m worried something may have happened to you.”

4. Treat negative feelings respectfully, not guiltily. I’ve always been impressed with how open the Savior was about his negative feelings. In only one example, in 3 Nephi, we read that he is “troubled” because of Israel’s wickedness; but just a few verses later, he is saying, “My joy is full” because of the faithfulness of the people. (3 Ne. 17:14, 20.)

Many people feel that negative feelings are wrong, so they try to act as if they feel something else. The result is a double message, for it is simply impossible to express spontaneous love—or any other kind of positive emotion—under those circumstances. If the family rules allow the open and respectful expression of negative feelings (“When you did that, I felt hurt because …”), then positive feelings would flow more freely too.

Another temptation when you have negative feelings is to “let it all hang out.” Usually, this philosophy is actually a license to hurt. When the Apostle Paul told us to “speak … the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), I think he was telling us that we must share negative feelings in sensitive, non-threatening ways, being honest but in a way that will not make others feel defensive or put down. Sharing feelings is not an excuse to punish, blame, or insult.

5. Don’t criticize the other person’s feelings or try to change them. Only the person who has the feelings can change them. We can help most by listening and empathizing, but we may only make our mates feel worse if we say, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “I can’t imagine why you feel that way.” They may decide to stop talking to us since we only make them feel worse.

We can show empathy by supportive listening—eye contact, nods, pats, or hugs. We can also reflect our mate’s feelings by saying things such as, “It sounds as if you’re really worn out” or “You seem really happy with the way things have turned out.” Receiving our mate’s self-revelations without judgments, criticism, or rejection is so important that I wish I could think of a stronger way to say it. I think the main reason so many couples never achieve intimacy is that they can’t create a climate for real sharing by being warm and understanding when they listen. Too many of us react defensively when we hear our mate express feelings.

6. Keep in touch. Sharing feelings isn’t just for marathon sessions or crisis times. My wife and I have found it useful to get in touch with each other’s feelings each morning by asking, “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?” or by saying, “Today I’m feeling. …” It only takes a few moments but we know where the other person stands, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in other ways. We have a sense of oneness and really feel motivated to be supportive and understanding. On days when we’ve neglected this “getting in touch,” I can tell the difference in just one day; and frequently the difference shows up in how effectively we relate with each other and with our children. It’s so important to keep in touch that if I leave before she wakes up in the morning, we touch base on the phone during the day.

What differences does it make to have this kind of intimacy in a home? Let me tell you what difference it makes to us. As I hold monthly interviews with my children to set goals and instruct them, the highlight for me comes when we get down to how they’re feeling about themselves, the family, school, church, the way we’re treating them, etc.

When feelings of anxiety and inferiority surface, I can get at the roots of the problems, not just the symptoms. Hearing and understanding our children’s feelings makes them feel loved. It helps us as parents adjust our behavior to deal with them more effectively. Most important, these interviews give me an open invitation to share my positive feelings about my children.

I’ll never forget the thrill I felt one night after the children had watched Heidi on television. The members of that family had talked about their love for each other and had demonstrated it in ways that moved our children. We talked about it while I helped get the children ready for bed; and suddenly one of my sons, his eyes filled with tears, reached out and put his arms around me. “Dad, I love you so much,” he cried. “I’m so grateful you’re my dad and that we can be together as a family.” Those next few moments, when I in turn shared my feelings about him, were some of the most tender of my life.

As I shared this experience later with my wife, we felt as if we were in on a great secret. This was what life was all about—developing close, loving relationships and sharing those feelings with each other. What if my son had repressed those feelings because he thought boys weren’t supposed to show emotion? That moment made the thousands of hours we’d invested in our children worth it.

Whether we recognize it, whether we are willing to admit it, that is what we all hunger for: the feeling of closeness to others, beginning with our Heavenly Father—the feeling of loving, appreciating, and prizing others and of being loved, accepted, and valued ourselves.

One night when I was down on the floor playing with my boys, one young son said, “Dad, thank you for playing with us like this. It’s really a lot more fun when you’re here.”

That statement was a double thank-you. I not only felt appreciated, I could see that my son was learning to be in touch with his feelings and express them.

As I look back over my life, the memories that really stand out are those times I’ve shared my true feelings of love with others and they’ve shared theirs with me. My father has been dead for years now, but I can still hear his voice in my mind saying, “I love you, son” or “I’m proud of you, son.”

It’s a thrilling thing when couples and families can throw off their taboos about showing emotions and can communicate about their feelings, when they listen and speak to each other with sensitivity, and when they—sometimes for the first time—experience intimacy. I’ll never forget one man who came to believe that sharing his feelings was a sign of strength, not weakness, and told his wife how he’d been feeling about himself. Seeing her receive his words with gratitude and relief and understanding, he exclaimed with the light of discovery in his face, “It’s a whole new world, isn’t it!”

That’s the point. The world of feelings is an exciting world, the place where we really live, the home of our testimonies and joys and sorrows—all of the things that make us uniquely human.

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

C. Richard Chidester, an instructor at the Institute of Religion, University of Utah, serves on a Church Instructional Development writing committee.