What is Alexithymia and how it impacts relationships?

Jun 27, 2023

Therapist doing online therapy Telehealth

Understanding our own and other people’s emotions is necessary for building an emotional connection, effective communication, and satisfaction in our relationships. However, some people have difficulty identifying, understanding, and expressing feelings, which can hurt their relationships and overall sense of well-being.

No Words for Emotions: Understanding Alexithymia

Alexithymia is a condition characterized by trouble identifying, describing, and expressing one’s own and other people’s emotions. Although this difficulty understanding emotional experiences primarily impacts individuals with autism, it is also present in approximately 10 percent of the general population.

Alexithymia is not classified as a mental health disorder. Still, a person can experience it if they have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, autism, or eating disorders.

Our capacity to recognize, understand, and express emotions is essential to emotional intelligence because it allows us to be aware of our feelings and how they may influence others. Couples counseling can help you understand your emotional intelligence by identifying, understanding, and predicting the emotional responses of others and responding appropriately to them.

How to Recognize Alexithymia

If you have alexithymia, it may be hard to understand your emotional and cognitive processes, label or talk about your feelings, and understand the physical sensations linked to your emotions.

Here are common signs of alexithymia that emerge through couples therapy:

  • Difficulty identifying your feelings
  • Difficulty differentiating between emotions and bodily sensations linked to them
  • Problems recognizing emotions in others
  • Difficulty responding to others’ emotions
  • Poor stress-coping skills
  • A rigid thinking style without imagination
  • A lack of humor and life satisfaction
  • A lack of altruistic behavior

You might also experience emotional numbness or have a limited range of emotions. Because of this, you might make sense of your feelings by rationalizing or intellectualizing them, making it difficult for you to express them clearly and effectively. As a result, you may come off as rigid and distant in social interactions.

What Causes Alexithymia?

While it is not clear what are the exact causes of alexithymia, it is believed that it may result from an interplay of factors such as genetics, brain injury, low emotional intelligence, and environmental factors (such as attachment styles or childhood trauma).

How Does Alexithymia Impact Your Relationships?

When one of the partners has alexithymia, this can make a relationship emotionally challenging. Alexithymia can significantly affect your emotional connection, intimacy, and relationship dynamics.

Here are some common relationship problems you may experience.

Communication Difficulties

If you have alexithymia, you may struggle expressing your emotions or understand how your partner feels. This can lead to communication problems, disappointment, and frustration, creating emotional distance between you and your partner.

Lack of Empathy

Empathy is split into two parts: cognitive and affective, or emotional. Emotional empathy involves our emotional response or the ability to share or mirror the emotional states of others. It is, for example, when you cry when another person cries.

Cognitive empathy is about our ability to identify and understand how other people feel and to take others’ perspectives into account. Because alexithymia makes identifying and understanding other people’s emotions challenging, you may have difficulty empathizing with your partner.

Intellectualization

People with alexithymia struggle with showing vulnerability. Therefore, when feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, or sadness, you may resort to intellectualization and use logic to help you cope with difficult emotions. So, you might use overly abstract or metaphorical language to communicate your feelings, leaving your partner confused and frustrated.

Absence of Emotional Reciprocity

A lack of emotional reciprocity can create misunderstandings and resentment, making your partner feel abandoned and neglected and straining your connection.

A mental health professional might help. Individual or couple counseling can be an excellent tool to develop healthy coping strategies to navigate your emotional challenges and build more beneficial relationships.

How to Take Control of Your Alexithymia

As an inability to identify and describe emotions, alexithymia can cause difficulties in relationships and social interactions. However, a qualified therapist can help you address alexithymia and develop more positive emotional connections.

Learning about Alexithymia

Learning about alexithymia and its impact on your relationships is the first step in couples counseling toward understanding your condition, treating yourself with more self-compassion, and overcoming the emotional challenges it causes.

Tap Into the Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being fully present at the moment and observing your thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings without judgment or reactivity. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing exercises or body scans can help you connect with your bodily sensations and understand their emotions.

Work on Your Communication Skills

Counseling can be a safe place to learn effective communication strategies such as reflective listening, “I” statements, and validation that support emotional expression and can increase understanding, vulnerability, and trust in your relationship.

Although alexithymia may cause significant challenges in your relationship, improvement, and reconnection are possible. Couples therapy can help you navigate emotional difficulties, improve emotional connection, and learn practical communication skills to help you build healthy and mutually rewarding relationships.

Let’s connect soon so we can set up a consultation.

Filippo M. Forni, LMFT is an individual and couples therapist in Los Angeles, CA. His goal is to provide high-quality and effective goal-oriented therapy services to the Los Angeles and Century City community. He has extensive training in sexuality and multiculturalism and serves as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology.