Emotional Habits

Dear Alistair,

My husband is a true South African man, one who rarely expresses his emotions to me when he is in a bad space. This makes me feel uncertain as to how best to support him. What I want to know is whether these emotional habits are genetic, learnt, or just hard wired into men… and whether it is possible for him to learn new habits?!

First of all the good news is that the brain remains malleable, or plastic, until the day we die, which means that change and/or emotional development is possible! The not-so-good news is that emotional habits are often deeply ingrained and unconscious, partly learnt and partly genetic in nature.

As you have experienced, when many people, including your husband, experience negative emotions the behaviour that results often includes the avoidance of the emotions, leaving others confused and uncertain as to what the feelings are. Such unhealthy emotional habits generally have their roots in early infancy. The following is my attempt at helping you and your husband to understand what causes one’s deeply entrenched emotional habits to develop.

1. The attachment bond
Many of our emotional habits develop early in life as part of our first interactive love relationship. The “attachment bond” is the term for this relationship – the one with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. The quality of this relationship is the most important predictor of how well a child will perform emotionally and in all relationships. Attachment isn’t a reflection of the mother’s love for her child, only of her emotional state and her own attachment history.

As young children we had a limited ability to soothe ourselves. If our caretaker/s were unable to provide comfort, we would have stifled our emotions in order to survive. This is how the core feelings we’re born with – such as anger, sadness, or fear – can actually disappear from consciousness.

2. The ‘rules’ of our society
From the day we are born, we are taught to cope with our emotions in a particular manner. This depends to some extent on whether we are boy children or girl children. Traditionally daughters have been taught to express those feelings that are socially acceptable for girls, such as sadness, and to suppress those that are not, such as anger. For boys, ‘cowboys don’t cry’ has meant that the rational has been prioritized over the emotional and most boys have learnt to deny and/or ignore many of their feelings, including fear, hurt and sadness.

3. The emotional habits of our parents
The way in which we learn to cope with our emotions also depends to a large extent on how our parents coped with their own emotions while we were growing up. If we are raised in a household in which one or both parents rarely displayed negative emotion such as sadness, anger, or some other uncomfortable emotion, then we learn that it is better to avoid or suppress our emotions than express them.

By learning to accept and express his emotions, your husband is likely to find that his relationships become more open and honest and cause less resentment and/or misunderstanding.