This May Be the Secret to Happiness in Relationships
New research on positivity in couples, and the power of 'downregulation.'
Posted June 13, 2015
Laughter can be, if not the best, at least great medicine for your personal health. You may not be aware, however, of the many relationship health benefits of sharing a smile or laugh. Couples who successfully navigate their inevitable periods of conflict and disagreement in long-term relationships know how best to use constructive, rather than destructive, methods of resolution. In constructive conflict resolution, you focus on the problem, not the person; in destructive conflict resolution, you make things personal.
A key component to relationship health is that happy couples know how to relish their happy moments together. It seems obvious that sharing the joys of everyday life with your partner could promote your long-term bond. When you laugh with your partner, you’re serving as a source of positive reinforcement. As your partner increasingly comes to associate you with rewarding experiences, you boost your partner’s motivation to be with you (and vice versa).
Positive emotions do more than provide psychological comfort, however. According to University College of London’s Sophie K. Scott and colleagues (2014):
“Laughter is one of the positive emotional expressions, which are expressly linked to a physiological reduction in the stressful reactions to negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, disgust), in a way which may be more effective than other ways of managing negative emotions” (pp. 619-620).
Laughing helps your body as well as your mind: Scott and her team bolstered their argument with evidence taken from a long-term study of middle-aged and older married couples. That study focused on the general relationship benefits of being able to manage emotions. Called "emotion regulation," this is essentially the ability to make yourself feel better when you feel bad. If you’re capable of emotion regulation, you can put the brakes on such negative emotions as anger, frustration, and hostility. You can also keep humorous reactions in bounds, reflecting the situation as appropriate (unlike the “class clown”).
Stanford University psychologist Lian Bloch and collaborators (2014) used data from a 13-year study of heterosexual marriages among middle-aged and older couples to examine whether the ones who used the process of “downregulating” negative emotion (i.e., getting themselves to feel better) would be better able to cope when faced with relationship strife. The researchers examined the predictive power of negative downregulation as the first assessment on marital satisfaction over the course of the 13 years of the study.
In a long-term study such as this, you could argue from the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” perspective that the same quality that allows couples to regulate negative emotions at one point in time allows them to feel more satisfied with each other. Only a true experiment could rule out this possibility. Because earlier scores were being used statistically to predict later outcomes, however, there’s also a strong case to be made for a directional arrow from downregulation at one point in time to marital satisfaction in the following years.
On each testing occasion, the Stanford study brought married couples to a lab session during which they spent 15 minutes each talking about:
- events of the day;
- a topic of continued disagreement; and
- a pleasant topic or something they enjoyed doing together.
Their physiological reactions were monitored at the same time, and participants also rated their emotions during these encounters. Participants also rated the quality of their own conflict resolution, and whether it was constructive or destructive in nature.
The key question, then, was whether emotion regulation would predict marital satisfaction. However, the data were also broken down by spouse (husband vs. wife) so the researchers could also examine whose downregulation was more important for the relationship’s long-term health. The subtitle of the article—“More than a Wives’ Tale"—gives away the punch line because the wife’s downregulation more successfully predicted marital satisfaction over time. Her ability to communicate constructively played the key role in making good things happen long-term.
We know from this study, then, that regulating negative emotions (by wives in particular) is helpful in maintaining relationship bonds. How do the findings relate to the sharing of positive emotions? Were couples benefited at all by focusing on an enjoyable, mutual activity? Berkeley psychologist Joyce Yuan and colleagues (2010), using the same married couples in the Bloch et al. research, found that couples who experienced positive emotions were better able to calm themselves physiologically as well. Positive emotions, in short, “have the capacity to ‘undo’ physiological arousal” (p. 471).
Laughter is certainly one of the strongest reactions we have to positive emotions. You may smile when you’re feeling good, but you’ll only laugh if something strikes you as out-and-out funny. Scott and her team noted that people laugh surprisingly often, perhaps as much as 5 times in a 10-minute conversation.
People also tend to laugh more at what they say than at what others contribute to the dialogue, according to the Scott et al. analysis. We seem to use laughter more as a tool in communicating our thoughts to others than in reacting to what those around us are trying to communicate. (The next time you're chatting with a friend or your partner, take note of the times you laugh and see if this observation matches your own experience.)
Returning to the research, these findings suggest that you may be able to control the emotional climate of your relationship by bringing laughter into it. At first, it might seem strange or forced, but over time, you may find that you and your partner actually find more to laugh about in common. Press the pause button on conflicts before they become destructive and take a moment to put things in perspective. Who knows? Once you take that step back, the whole situation may become laughable. As difficult as it might be the first time, getting in the habit of downregulating together may be the best medicine for long-term relationship fulfillment.
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- Bloch, L., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2014). Emotion regulation predicts marital satisfaction: More than a wives’ tale. Emotion, 14(1), 130-144. doi:10.1037/a0034272
- Scott, S. K., Lavan, N., Chen, S., & McGettigan, C. (2014). The social life of laughter. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 18(12), 618-620. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2014.09.002
- Yuan, J. W., McCarthy, M., Holley, S. R., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). Physiological down-regulation and positive emotion in marital interaction. Emotion, 10(4), 467-474. doi:10.1037/a0018699
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015