How clearly do couples express emotion to each other during conflict? Recently, Keith Sanford, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences studied the communication of emotion during conflict in married couples. It turns out that couples are pretty skilled at reading the emotions of their mates during conflict.
However, what that emotion means is not always clear, especially if the emotion is anger. Sanford found that when there is conflict that happens repeatedly over time, couples will express anger about it regardless of how they actually feel and regardless of the fact that it may lead to more conflict. “They tend to continue expressing anger regardless of how they actually feel,” he said, “… it becomes a kind of trap they cannot escape.”
Furthermore, he found that if your partner is angry, you are more likely to miss the fact that your partner might also be feeling sad, even though it is common for sadness to be an emotion they are also feeling. Previous research has found that genuine expressions of sadness during a conflict can draw partners closer together and enable couples to break out of a climate of anger. Expressing the sadness during conflict, then, is likely to be much more beneficial when it comes to conflict resolution. But this sadness is not likely to be noticed when anger is being expressed.
In this study, Sanford doesn’t explain why anger gets expressed versus sadness, but one might easily guess why this may be. Sadness, fear, shame, and disappointment are examples of what are considered to be “soft” emotions – emotions that indicate a more vulnerable state. This is likely part of why it can lead to conflict resolution and draw partners closer together (when your partner is feeling vulnerable you tend to move towards them), however, it is also likely why it is more difficult to express. Expressing anger and other “hard” emotions generally makes someone feel powerful and invulnerable, whereas expressing sadness may make the person feel more vulnerable, which can be challenging to do when feeling hurt or sad.
When couples have conflict, then, they need to be crystal clear about the goal of the discussion, which is something that most couples don’t do. Most couples feel upset and launch into conflict, without really investigating what their own feelings actually are, or how they might talk about it in a way that would lead to a resolution. A person might feel hurt or sad in addition to anger but they react by leading with the anger, because this makes them feel less vulnerable. Thus the cycle of anger and repetitive conflicts is born. However, if members of a couple could stop for a moment when they get angry and identify the other feelings involved, such as sadness or hurt, and be willing to express these emotions with the goal of change being made, an entirely different outcome could be realized.
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