Communication problems in relationships are no new thing. Every couple has difficulty discussing highly emotional topics. And every one of us has bad communication habits such as using “you” statements or “but”, defensiveness, arguing, and nagging. At the same time, according to a new study from the University of Missouri, your spouse’s difficulty talking about his or others feelings could be a clinical condition.
Alexithymia is a newly recognized personality trait that refers to an inability to describe, understand and communicate emotions. Individuals with the condition also have difficulty associating their feelings with the physical signs of emotional arousal, i.e. sweaty palms for excitement or heat flush for anger. It’s not that those with alexthymia do not express emotion–in fact, they tend to have crying or raging episodes. Rather, they have a hard time elaborating on their emotional state beyond general terms such as “happy” or “angry” and seem confused by questions about specific feelings.
People with alixthymia may seem well adjusted and successful, partly because they tend to think in very concrete and logical terms. However, their social lives are likely strained because of emotional communication problems in relationships, reports the study.
“Once they are married, alexithymic people are likely to feel lonely and have difficulty communicating intimately, which appears to be related to lower marital quality,” study author Nick Frye-Cox explains. “People with alexithymia are always weighing the costs and benefits, so they can easily enter and exit relationships. They don’t think others can meet their needs, nor do they try to meet the needs of others.”
It can be incredibly frustrating and sad for partners. At the same time, understanding that this is simply part of how your spouse is hard-wired can help bring peace through acceptance. There is also emotional training available that can help teach individuals with alixthymia or autism how to read and interpret emotional cues. And co-author of the study Colin Hesse has found in his own research that “affectionate communication ranging from hugs, touching, or even the posture taken during communication can make a positive impact, even if it only relieves anxiety.” Alixthymia tends to go hand-in-hand with other disorders such as autism, PTSD, eating disoders and panic disorders. Professional interventions can improve the quality of life for both sufferers and their loved ones, so don’t hesitate to talk to your therapist about these issues.