Hiding Things in Relationships and the Over- or Underwhelming Effect

I'm reading a book called Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman, a psychologist who is famous for categorizing the relationship between people's facial expressions and the corresponding emotions they are feeling, and also being the person on which the show "Lie to Me" is based.

In Chapter 4 he references John Gottman's claim that when people stonewall their partners (try to resist expressing their emotions and shut down) it's because they are experiencing emotions so strong that they are unable to deal with them. Ekman then goes on to talk about how emotions need to be in proportion to their stimulus, e.g. intense anger can be proportional and correct when you need to fight for your life but not when your partner accidentally forgets to call. I talk about proportional emotions a lot with my clients, as I believe this is a cornerstone of working on oneself--becoming emotionally intelligent such that we don't cause or feel excess suffering.

All of this made me think about hiding things in relationships. This is kind of a silly example, but once Liz and I were trying to put together our new bed and I didn't know how to do it but I assumed I did. Once it became clear that I didn't know how and I also decided, although not really consciously, that I wasn't going to admit this fact, anything Liz said became a trigger for me to freak out at her. Because I was hiding a secret that I didn't know what I was doing, I had to protect that at all costs.

This pertains to bigger things as well--cheating comes to mind. If one partner has cheated and is carrying around that secret, any situation or question that has the potential to reveal it will often create a lot of disproportionate pushing back--anger is common. The other option I've seen a lot is someone who is otherwise normally emotional becoming totally unemotional for a temporary period of time, as if our mind-body understands that it can't reveal emotions because they are the most revealing thing we have and do, and this secret is too risky.

Another aspect of disproportionate emotions is when things that pertain to the situation are hidden even from ourselves, buried away in our subconscious. Instead of conscious omission of information, it's unconscious but has a similar effect. An example here is when I used to get really mad when Liz wouldn't let me know if her plans changed and she'd be home later, for example. My anger was completely disproportionate to her action, which wasn't a huge deal. But I was hiding from both her and myself, i.e. this belief was unconscious, that I am undeserving of love and when she would not check in with me I'd start to get very anxious that the time had come where she'd leave me just like I knew it would.

This is all useful for two reasons. First of all, if your partner becomes overly defensive or completely underwhelmed by something, there is likely more to the story. However, I don't intend this to be a tip where now he or she becomes overly upset and you're now sure he or she cheated and he better confess to you. It could mean any constellation of things that are much less harmful but perhaps embarrassing to him or her, like "Going out with your friends makes me feel like I don't matter when all your attention is on them"--not something any of us wants to admit but very common nonetheless. Therefore, it's very important to simply inquire and be curious about what's going on. Don't assume because the reaction is disproportionate that you know why. You can simply say you noticed that it seems disproportionate relative to his or her normal way of acting.

Second is that when we notice ourselves reacting in this way, we can ask ourselves what it is that we don't know or remember about past events in our lives and/or what fears we have that come up in many different situations that also come into play here. Maybe you scan all these disproportionate reactions and see that it's often or always when someone questions your authority, and then you remember whenever you made a firm choice growing up your mom would undermine you. This is classic therapeutic intervention and it serves to lessen the hold of these intense emotions on you and provide more free will in your reaction.