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How One Partner Becomes the Weak Link in a Relationship

New research on couples shows which partner can lower a relationship's quality.

Key points

  • Emotional expression is a key component of successful close relationships.
  • New research reveals a "weak link" effect on satisfaction and communication when one partner's emotional suppression is high.
  • By understanding the dynamics of couple communication, a person can establish more fulfilling relationships even if they are the weak link.
Usoltsev Kirill/Shutterstock
Source: Usoltsev Kirill/Shutterstock

When you think about the quality of your closest relationship, how do you separate your own contribution to its overall health from that of your partner? Do you believe that you give more than you take, or is it your partner who seems to make all the sacrifices? In terms of the emotional “balance of trade,” are your contributions pretty equal, or is one partner more likely to be in debt?

Although you may not like the idea of defining your relationship in monetary terms, theories of couple satisfaction often borrow metaphors from economics. For example, one model focuses on equity as the basis for a couple’s happiness, based on the proposal that the give-and-take between partners should be approximately on an even keel for both to regard their relationship as a good one. One partner gives by tending to small household tasks; the other is responsible for keeping track of finances. No one feels particularly taken advantage of in the ideal relationship, according to this model.

The exchange theory of relationship satisfaction is based, in contrast, on the proposal that each partner regards the rewards of being in the relationship as equal to the costs. When you conduct a risk-benefit analysis, you decide you’d rather stay with your partner than leave, if you’re behaving in accordance with this approach.

Expressive Suppression and Relationship Satisfaction

Couples also give and take in the emotional department. As noted by University of Auckland’s Eri Sasaki and colleagues (2021), each person in a long-term relationship contributes to its health by virtue of the extent to which they share or don't share their feelings with the other. This quality, known as expressive suppression (ES), “involves attempts to conceal emotional expressions from others."

Keeping your emotions hidden from a partner, as the authors note, takes mental effort and can, because it’s so demanding, make it harder for you to solve problems effectively. If you’re so busy holding on to your anger about your partner’s failure to vacuum the rug that you make a mistake in paying a credit card bill, this will invariably lead to an argument when, next month, you have to make an overdue interest payment.

The other problem you create by holding in your emotions is that you don’t actually engage in honest communication. Your partner, in turn, won’t know how you’re feeling and could potentially fail to attend to your underlying needs. If you’re hurting because a relative treated you poorly but don’t share these bruised feelings with your partner, it would be all too easy for your partner to believe that your bad mood stems from something going on within your relationship. In the words of the authors, “greater ES during couples’ conflict interactions predicts lower conflict resolution."

The New Zealand authors note that couples rarely engage in equal amounts of ES, but if the balance is completely off, the “weak link” partner (higher in ES) could disrupt the potential happiness that both partners experience. The high-ES partner will be less easy to read, leading potentially to the other’s lack of responsiveness, understanding, and sense of connection.

It Only Takes One to Lower a Relationship’s Quality

Although there is a body of previous research showing that each partner’s ES predicts the quality of a relationship, Sasaki et al. note that most of the prior work fails to take into account the combined effect of ES tendencies in each partner as a combined effect on outcomes. Perhaps both of you are high-ES or both of you are low-ES. You may have figured out a way to get along given that each of you has the same preference for sharing or not sharing feelings. What happens when only one of you is the sharer?

The U. Auckland research team proposes that it’s the weak link in the relationship who can cause a couple’s satisfaction as a whole to suffer. By looking at the interaction of two partners (“Actor X Partner”) as an influence on relationship quality, the authors believed they could identify the unique problems that occur when a low-ES individual has a high-ES partner. The weak link in terms of ES, then, is the dyad member who engages in high levels of suppression, and that’s enough to undermine the relationship quality as a whole.

In the words of the authors, “because both actors and partners need be open, responsive and engaged to manage relationship challenges, we theorized that it would only take one dyad member—actor or partner—to habitually use ES to undermine relationship satisfaction." This means that even the most open and expressive member of a couple will feel tested by a partner who continually refuses to reciprocate.

Using data from 4 existing studies of couples, the New Zealand-led team examined the relationships of 427 long-term heterosexual couples, with average ages of ranging from 23 to 37 years old The majority of couples were married and those who were not described their relationship as “serious.”

Each partner completed the following 4-item measure of expressive suppression. See how you would score, rating yourself from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):

  1. I control my emotions by not expressing them.
  2. When I am feeling negative emotions, I make sure not to express them.
  3. I keep my emotions to myself.
  4. When I am feeling positive emotions, I am careful not to express them.

The average score per item across the four samples was right in the middle of the scale, or just below the 3.5 mark.

Participants also completed brief measures of relationship satisfaction (e.g. “Our relationship is close to ideal”), and they rated their ability to resolve conflict (e.g. “When I put my mind to it, I can just about solve any disagreement that comes up between my partner and me”). (Having rated your own expressive suppression, see how you think you would score on these two couple quality measures.)

Turning now to the findings, the authors calculated the contributions made by each partner’s ES to the two outcome measures of satisfaction. To test the weak-link hypothesis, the authors compared couples in the three categories of both partners low in ES, both partners high in ES, and — the weak-link combination — partners who were different in ES (i.e. high-low, low-high).

Looking first at relationship satisfaction, couples in which both partners were low in ES also were the most satisfied. This finding supports the theory that a relationship fares better when both partners can communicate their feelings openly. However, couples in which one partner was high in ES and the other low, the weak-link pattern, showed the lowest relationship satisfaction, regardless of whether it was the actor or the partner whose ES was high.

In the area of conflict resolution, the findings were even more striking: Couples in which either the actor or the partner had high ES scores were least likely to be able to use the communication tools that would allow them to settle their differences in a productive manner.

What to Do If You’re in a Weak-Link Relationship

Perhaps it is you who tends to hold onto your feelings and your partner who tries to get you to open up, particularly when there’s a problem. If so, the Sasaki et al. findings suggest that you find ways to break through your barriers in expressing emotions. It may, on the other hand, be your partner who tends to retreat when differences arise. How can you help persuade your partner to be more open and honest?

As the authors suggest, high ES interrupts a host of “social dynamics” including “perceived support, closeness, authenticity, and gratitude." At times, furthermore, couples may become involved in situations that require balancing personal needs with “appropriate relationship sacrifices.”

Thinking back to some of those economic models of relationships, this suggests that high ES can get in the way of establishing a satisfactory equilibrium. If you’re low in ES, you have no problem delving into a possible imbalance, and it can be frustrating when your partner clams up. However, as Sasaki et al. note, “cognitive reappraisal… may reduce the damaging effect” of a partner’s low ES. These strategies can include trying to tell yourself to stay calm, look at the situation in a more positive light, or just change what you’re thinking about. Staying calm may also help your partner find a way to start talking about difficult subjects without fear of making you angry.

To sum up, whether it’s you or your partner who is the weak link, recognizing the imbalance in your emotional expressiveness can be the first step to finding greater understanding and fulfillment.

Facebook image: Usoltsev Kirill/Shutterstock

References

Sasaki, E., Overall, N. C., Chang, V. T., & Low, R. S. T. (2021). A dyadic perspective of expressive suppression: Own or partner suppression weakens relationships. Emotion. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000978 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000978 (Supplemental)

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