There is a disorder that is making more and more sense into why couples break up. The personality trait is called “Alexithymia,” and it renders the person it affects unable to communicate their feelings or understand their feelings as well as their partner’s. Communication is the number one reason most relationships break up or divorce, so understanding what happens and why some people have such difficulty communicating may help save marriages and shed light into how marital therapy can help these couples.
As you can imagine, the person who has this condition does not suffer alone, and their partner usually feels lonely and unable to connect. Nick Frye-Cox is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, and after studying people with these conditions, reports that although the affected person can describe physical feelings such as a headache, stomachache or rapid heart rate, they cannot identify if the emotion accompanying the physical affects is sad, happy, or upset. People with this disorder have trouble relating to others and they tend to be uncomfortable in social situations, which may also cause them to suffer social anxiety. They present as being the “stoic type,” and avoid emotional topics. Many of these people do marry because they like the security and sense of feeling that they belong, but they are incredibly difficult to form an emotional intimate relationship with. When surveyed, these people reported feeling lonely and had low marriage quality.
Alexithymia does affect both males and females, but it affects men more. People with this condition are constantly weighing the costs and benefits of being in a relationship, so they enter and exit quite easily because they don’t expect the others to be able to meet their needs, and they don’t try to meet the needs of others they are involved with.
This personality trait is correlated with other conditions such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorders, substance abuse and depression. The treatment for Alexithymia may be dependent on the disorder it accompanies, but if you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from it, the following suggestions may help minimize the communication problems. There is a spectrum for this disorder, meaning some people may suffer from it minimally while others suffer severely.
1. If you are in a committed relationship with someone suffering from this disorder, the most important thing is to take care of you. Begin therapy for you for emotional strength and guidance.
2. Since your partner cannot appreciate emotions and discuss them, it will be important to establish a group of close friends who are aware of your situation.
3. Become invested in your interests, especially if they are of the emotional nature. This will help you feel more complete.
4. When you do things with your partner make sure they are things you both enjoy doing together. Sharing activities can keep you close and connected on a physical level.
5. If you have mature children, both you and your children should discuss the trait so your child understands. Helping your children understand their parent’s inability to express or understand emotion helps them feel more secure in themselves.
Since the majority of these relationships are not strong, it is important that you don’t blame your partner for what they cannot do. It is a trait passed on genetically, or a reaction to severe stress. I have seen couples work through this disorder, but it requires patience and understanding from both partners. Having Alexithymia is not a death sentence for a relationship if the couple works together ensuring both partners’ needs are fulfilled in other ways. –Mary Jo Rapini
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