Have You Run Out of Things to Talk About with Your Partner?

New research shows how to fix the sounds of silence.

Posted Nov 30, 2019

You and your partner get along terrifically, so when you’ve decided to try out a new restaurant, you’re excited about spending a couple of hours together with no distractions from home. After placing your orders and chatting about the eatery’s décor, you’re surprised to realize that neither of you have anything to say. You glance around at the other diners, take a few sips of water, hoping your partner will launch a new conversation topic. However, the sounds of silence continue until the server (finally) brings your meals.

Even the closest romantic partners can occasionally run out things to talk about with each other. Although you might think this means that your relationship has run its course, it’s natural to feel a little stuck in the chatting department from time to time. A new study on romantic couples by Bat-Hen Shahar and colleagues (2019), of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev tested out the benefits of using emotional insights as the inspiration to get the conversation flowing again.

The theory underlying the study, known as integration of emotion regulation (IER), is that recognizing your emotions and then anchoring them within your sense of self can improve your ability to “cope adaptively with a wide range of environmental contingencies.” People who are able to regulate their emotions have “access to both positive and negative feelings and an ability to express them, fostering self-acceptance, personal growth, and interpersonal intimacy." In other words, if you’re in touch with your emotions, and feel that you can control them, you’ll have better close relationships as well. IER also suggests that, paradoxically, you’ll be less depressed by taking an interest in your negative emotions than if you try to suppress them. It would make sense, from an IER perspective, that you would also be better able to relate to your intimate partner if you can access your own internal state. You will be less defensive, less aroused, and more open to honest feedback from your partner.

Rather than relying on self-report to test IER theory, the Israeli researchers used an experimental manipulation in which one partner in a couple received directions in emotional expression (the “instructed” partner) and the other partner did not (the “naïve” partner). The idea behind the research was to find out if the emotion manipulation would affect how well the naïve partner would feel during the conflict conversation. Going even further than asking about feelings, Shahar et al. measured the physiological arousal of the naïve partner to determine whether the emotion manipulation would affect how much he or she felt stirred up during the conversation.

Shahar et al.’s emotion manipulation experiment tested IER theory by exposing participants to one of three sets of instructions prior to engaging in the conflict discussion task with their naïve partner. In the IER condition, the instructed participants were told to “take an interest” in their emotions, to be “attentive as much as possible…and try to see how your emotions are related to your goals and wishes during the discussion.” In the second condition, the instructed partners were told to distance themselves as much as possible from their emotions and “to try to not feel anything” but instead to look at the discussion “as objectively and rationally as possible.” In the third, emotion-suppression condition, the researchers told the instructed participants to “try to act so that your partner will not know whether you are feeling anything at all." A control condition served to allow the researchers to compare the three manipulations against each other as well as to the couple's ordinary mode of dealing with conflict.

Following the instructional phase, instructed participants then joined their naïve partners in a separate room where both were connected to skin conductance monitors, though only the physiological responses of the partner were actually measured. The couples watched a brief nature film (to allow baseline measures to be collected), and then began their 10-minute discussion of the topic that received the highest ratings of conflict on a previously-administered questionnaire. After completing the discussion, participants rated their levels of engagement during the conflict, their levels of stress and anger, the extent to which they viewed the discussion as productive, and the quality of communication they believed characterized the discussion. As an example of a communication item, participants stated whether they felt their partner was attentive to their feelings. Each partner also rated whether they believed the discussion had helped move them closer to resolving the conflict under discussion.

The 140 romantic couples recruited for the Israeli study averaged just under 22 years of age, with relationships ranging from 6 months to 3 years. As part of the background to the study, all participants also completed demographic questionnaires as well as measures of relationship satisfaction. The research team also asked participants to complete measures after the discussion to ensure the instructions actually worked.

The team’s findings supported the study’s prediction that couples in the IER manipulation condition would feel more engaged in the discussion with their partner. Furthermore, supporting the study’s main predictions, the naïve partners showed the greatest rise in skin conductance (the measure of physiological stress) in the control group. For those whose partners were instructed to use IER, levels of skin conductance began at lower levels and then steadily decreased across the 10 minutes of discussion. Furthermore, those in the control group felt their discussion was less productive than did those in the IER group, but this was only for the instructed partners. As the authors note, this is an area worthy of further investigation. If tuning into your emotional state can help you and your partner move a long-term area of conflict closer to resolution, this could provide an important step in improving your relationship overall.

That IER in the instructed partner was related to lower stress in the naïve partner reflects, what the authors propose, as a “second-hand smoke effect of emotion regulation and indicate that regulation instructions may influence not only the manipulated person but also his or her uninstructed partner." However, this isn’t always easy, as indicated by the higher stress levels of the instructed partner in the IER as well as suppression conditions. It may be less stressful to shove your negative feelings aside, then, but in the long run clamping down on your internal state can detract from the quality of your communication with your partner.

Returning to the question of what to do the next time you’re unable to keep the conversation going with your partner, the Shahar et al. findings suggest that you try listening to your own emotional reactions first. Are you afraid to talk because the conversation might lead to reconsideration of a painful topic? Do you worry that your inability to find a common topic to chat about reflects the feeling that your relationship is doomed to die on the vine? As you muse over these feelings, consider taking a page from the IER playbook and ask yourself what's really going on inside of you. What are your goals and wishes for the conversation? Articulating these can help you open up new areas of discussion or, perhaps, revisit old ones from a new perspective.

To sum up, there are simple ways to overcome gaps in any conversation, but with your closest partner, the new study suggests that you delve deeper into your own emotional experience to fill in those gaps. As you do, you and your partner will be better able to move your relationship that much closer to long and fulfilling conversations well into the future.

References

Shahar, B.-H., Kalman-Halevi, M., & Roth, G. (2019). Emotion regulation and intimacy quality: The consequences of emotional integration, emotional distancing, and suppression. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(11–12), 3343–3361. doi:10.1177/0265407518816881.