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Why Suppressed Emotions Can Erupt in a Crisis

Updated: 2 days ago

Building trust and safety in intimate relationships usually provides a significant buffer against any unexpected emergencies. Successful relationship partners know that their partnership will invariably face them and they count on each other to help navigate the challenge together.

But sometimes one partner may behave in an unexpected and unsupportive way when a crisis erupts. Seemingly out of nowhere, they react in ways that sabotage the situation.

Working with couples for four-plus decades, I have seen this unexpected and odd behavior many times and want to share with you why I believe it happens.

The partner who unexpectedly pulls out during a crisis has often suppressed resentments, anger, or hurt feelings in order to keep the peace and tranquility of the relationship. When a crisis occurs, those buried feelings can erupt under the pressure of a threatening situation. Instead of behaving as their partners would expect, the partner sitting on those longtime negative feelings may lash out.

Following are eight examples of these underlying potential relationship saboteurs and the unexpected reactions they may cause.

1. Hierarchical Power Relationships

One of the most damaging potential saboteurs is the feeling of resentment in a partner who has always allowed the other to be in charge. He or she may give into that power imbalance to keep the peace on the other end of a partner who needs that control.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner in charge: “I need your help now. Please just do it my way.”

  • Partner fed up: “You never need my input, so just do whatever you want to.”

2. One-Sided Responsibility for Errors

A couple seems to be getting along well. Yet, when a problem arises, it appears that both often agree that only one of the partners is usually responsible for the error. That person accepting blame is usually very quick to be sorry and to promise better behavior in the future. The other partner rarely feels the need to apologize and is readily forgiven.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who doesn’t accept blame: “If you had paid attention, this would never have happened.

  • Partner fed up: “Stop blaming me for everything. For once, take responsibility for your own mess.”

3. Unresolved Anger or Resentment

Too often a couple will sacrifice honesty and authenticity to keep the peace. One of the partners routinely holds back expressing discontent or resentment but those cumulative feelings lie under the surface. They might feel that their feelings are not warranted or will not make things better if expressed.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who thinks everything is OK: “Let’s get this together, sweetheart.”

  • Partner who has suppressed feelings: “I always do everything I can to make things work in this relationship. You’re on your own this time.”

4. Areas of Mistrust

No relationship is perfect and there is no such thing as perfect and overarching trust. Successful couples know each other well enough to count on what is likely to happen and not worry about what might not. They rely on the fact that promises, no matter how well-intended they are, do not always come true.

That is not a problem unless a partner buries feelings of mistrust and doesn’t share that disappointment.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who thinks they are trusted: “I can handle this. We’ll be fine.”

  • Partner who has suppressed mistrust: “You think you do everything right, but I don’t trust you to handle this.”

5. Unfairness

All couples share their resources of time, money, availability, and energy. They make agreements about how those resources will be distributed and under which circumstances. There are times when one partner needs more and the other accedes, fully expecting reciprocity when it is their turn.

If, over time, that balance skews more often for only one partner, the other may feel that the situation is unfair, but is unable to express the desire. Or, they might be the kind of person who gives too much and then becomes martyred when it is not returned in kind.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who thinks he or she is fair: “We can do this if we team up together."

  • Partner expressing unfairness: “You always make decisions that are best for you. Why should I trust that you care how it turns out for me?”

6. Lack of Response to Need

At any time, one partner may approach the other for connection, comfort, and support. Experts call it a bid for connection. It can be urgent or simply a need to share in that moment. The other partner may be preoccupied or just doesn’t see the situation as that important. If that happens on a regular basis, and the partner needing attention stops asking, they may no longer feel the need to be there when the other partner needs them.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who didn’t respond to needs: “I really need you now, honey.”

  • Partner who has suffered dismissal: “Oh, now that you need me, I’m suddenly important?

7. Threats of Abandonment

During disagreements, one partner may challenge the other by threats to leave the relationship. These comments are usually made in moments of escalated anger, and often dismissed as empty threats soon after. But if the partner threatened has experienced earlier abandonment trauma, they may bury more painful feelings and not express them.

A crisis emerges.

  • Partner who threatened abandonment: “I’m here for you whatever it takes.”

  • Partner who was traumatized: “I don’t believe that you’ll really stick around. I’ll handle this myself like I always do."

8. Score-Keeping

All relationships are primarily transactional. Whether they realize it or not, both expect reciprocity for involvement and availability. But, if one partner feels that the transactions are consistently primarily in favor of the other, that partner will silently begin to keep score.

A crisis occurs.

  • Partner who has consistently gotten more of the resources: “Let’s face this together, babe. We’re a great team.”

  • Partner who has felt used: “You get whatever you want in this relationship and it never benefits me, so why would I help you now?”

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