Males in many societies learn to value so-called masculine expressions of feelings and to eschew expressions of femininity. They are taught that tenderness and gentleness are feminine. So when a young boy expresses sensitive emotions by crying, his parents may be quick to assert, “You’re a big boy, and big boys don’t cry!” or “Don’t be such a sissy; be a man!” As the boy moves out from the family and into the sphere of male peer groups, the taboo against displaying vulnerable feelings is reinforced. Males should be encouraged to express their vulnerability without facing judgment or ridicule, and females should not bear the burden of drawing out or pursuing males in order for them to express themselves.
On the other hand, females in most cultures are given permission to express languages of love. Female expressions of anger, however, are discouraged because anger is an emotion more acceptable for males. When a woman asserts herself, she is accused of being aggressive; when she gives a strong opinion, she is judged as bossy; when she expresses anger, she is labeled as unfeminine and out of control. These messages that tie certain feelings with gender stereotypes restrict a person’s full range of expression.
The important thing is to help both males and females identify their feelings and be able to express them in ways that enhance relationships. Emotional expression is different for females and males, yet it is crucial to building intimacy. It is through expressing our feelings that we learn how others respond to important experiences in their lives. Emotional expressions allow us to gain insight into the character of the other (Roberts 2007).
The Expression of Love in Family Relationships The emotional bond between child and parent is the most important
dimension of child development. Children who are denied a strong emotional bond with their mothers and fathers must go through life compensating for this lack. The most extensive problem for both boys and girls is the lack of a strong emotional bonding with their fathers.
In keeping with their distinct societal roles, mothers and fathers differ in relating to their children (Bi et al. 2018; Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020). Evidence suggests that these differences begin early and increase through the child-rearing period. Studies show, for example, that mothers tend to engage
their babies directly to stimulate responses and to display affection, while fathers tend to read to or watch television with their children. Mothers are also more likely than fathers to hold, smile at, and speak to their infants.
The pattern that seems to emerge from the research on parenting is that mothers are more evenhanded in the affection they show daughters and sons, while fathers treat sons and daughters according to sexual stereotypes. Further, while the disparity in the father’s approach toward sons and daughters begins when the children are infants, it increases as they grow older. By the time children reach their teenage years, a father usually views a daughter as someone to be treated in a gentle manner, while a son is treated in a more distant way. It is not surprising that more daughters than sons rate their fathers high in nurturing and giving affection.
These patterns are often maintained into adulthood. Males and females interact differently emotionally, and this often affects marriage. Males who have had more distant fathers may not have the emotional skills to share with their female partners. Females, on the other hand, may experience this as distance in the relationship.
A couple’s ability to identify and communicate emotions is related to marital adjustment. Regardless of the total amount, similar levels of self- disclosure point to a healthy marriage. Emotional sharing and intimacy also affect the couple’s experience of sexual satisfaction (Yoo et al. 2014). Dissatisfaction and other problems are likely to emerge when there is an imbalance in the amount of self-disclosure.
Although the husband is typically less expressive than his wife, some factors work against a wife’s being open and sharing. For instance, the wife’s verbal expression of love will diminish over time if her expressions of love are not reciprocated by the husband. When there is an uneven vulnerability in sharing, she will undoubtedly hold back and share less often. In their research, John Gottman and Joan DeClaire (2001) find that one spouse will offer a statement to the other as a bid for greater intimacy—for instance, “I feel like I don’t know you.” When one spouse reveals himself or herself in an intimate way and the other stands aloof, not responding to the invitation for deeper connection, the spouse who reached out will cease taking steps toward greater intimacy.
Sometimes, expressiveness or non-expressiveness can become a power issue in marriage. If either spouse hides feelings to have more power or if withholding affection becomes an effort to control the other, both spouses
lose. Tactics like feigning interest in the relationship in an attempt to gain power will ultimately lead to distance and dissatisfaction in marriage (Gottman and DeClaire 2001). Reduction in marital self-disclosure can occur throughout the relationship’s life cycle. Events like the birth of a child bring change. Carrying this additional emotional burden, the wife may express herself less to her husband. As time passes, the child may be able to fill some of the emotional needs of the mother. It is natural for a mother to express herself to a child who returns love, in contrast to a husband who rarely returns affection. It behooves a couple to keep their spousal relationship a priority during transition times in a marriage.
Emotional expression in marriage is key to longevity and satisfaction. Males and females may have learned different ways to express their emotional sides growing up, but marriage affords both partners an opportunity to learn new ways of relating to others. For males, marriage encourages the increasing disclosure of emotional experience. For females, marriage provides a place where they can relate as a peer to another emotional being, sharing but not being responsible for their partner’s emotional experience.
Our differentiation in Christ (DifC) model indicates that authentic expression of experience is crucial for facilitating intimate relationships. Our identity as Christians is based on our adoption into God’s family. This adoptive relationship grounds our experience and empowers our expression and relationships with others. DifC facilitates two important dimensions of authentically relating to others. First, DifC allows us to actively reflect on and manage our experiences. We are able to gain insight into ourselves, both good and bad, and bring this all to Christ for confession and forgiveness. This aspect of DifC is similar to the emotional regulation aspects of emotional intelligence described above in that it enables us to honestly and authentically develop insight into our sinfulness and confess this to Christ in order to experience his forgiveness more deeply. Second, DifC allows us to live out our core identity as Christ’s brother or sister in relationship with another. In other words, DifC means authentically living out our identities by relating with others. We share the good and shameful aspects of ourselves with our spouses, and we look to them to do likewise. Authentic sharing and practicing forgiveness draw us deeper into relationship with Christ.
Expressing Anger: Negotiating the Inevitable Conflicts Expressing anger and resolving conflict provide opportunities for practicing intimate and respectful communication. Strong families are not those that never experience conflict but those that successfully manage conflict when it does arise. Most families, however, approach conflict as a threat to the family system rather than an opportunity for growth. Family conflict resolution can be a significant challenge, and it is to this pressing topic that we now turn.
Simply put, a conflict is a difference in opinion. Family conflict can be individual (i.e., between two family members) or collective (i.e., between two sets of family members). Most family conflict is systemic in nature, centering on changes within and between family systems. Marital conflict, for example, is most likely to occur during the initial years when the spousal system is being formed or during transitional periods involving family restructuring or re-forming. As would be expected, parental conflict has the most negative effect on children when focused on parental differences in child-rearing.
Regardless of the marital stage, conflict is greatest when spouses are under stress (Timmons, Arbel, and Margolin 2017). Parent-child conflict is less likely when the parental and sibling subsystems are on solid footing, and more likely when these two subsystems are in flux, such as when children reach their teenage years, when stepfamilies are formed, and so on. Conflict generates more threat and self-blame when there is little family connectedness.
It should also be noted that conflict between subsystems can cause secondary conflict between individuals in the subsystems. For example, parent-teenager conflict can intensify conflict between the husband and the wife around issues of discipline. In stepfamilies, conflicts between child and stepparent bring added tension into the spousal subsystem. Externally, an ex- spouse’s dealings with children can cause havoc in the remarriage. However, conflict between subsystems can also unify a subsystem, such as when conflict with parents leads children into coalition or when the remarried couple joins forces to present a united front when dealing with their children or ex-spouses.