When you communicate with your romantic partner, you face a choice about how much to show your emotions. You can act like you feel more strongly than you really do, express your emotions authentically, or deliberately suppress and underplay your feelings. You may use one or more of these strategies in service of a relationship goal like creating or maintaining closeness, gaining power, avoiding conflict, or getting your needs met. How much you use these strategies in day to day life will likely affect your relationship quality and satisfaction, but we don’t know for sure which strategy works best in what situation. A recent study focused on the effects of emotional suppression in predicting the relationship satisfaction of both partners.
Flexible versus rigid use of emotional suppression
Suppressing your emotions when talking to your partner may have negative effects when your partner is looking for emotional support, connection, or to better understand what you are needing or feeling. On the other hand, suppressing negative emotions may lower the intensity of conflict or help your partner feel more accepted. The researchers in this study thought that how rigidly versus flexibly you use emotional suppression may make a difference. If you always suppress emotions, this could get in the way of closeness and intimacy, but suppressing the expression of emotions when the situation demands it (e.g., you are heading towards a major fight) may be helpful in reducing negativity.
Emotion inertia is a pattern of emotion in which affective states remain consistent across time (Koval, Kuppens, Allen, & Sheeber, 2012, p. 1413). High emotion inertia indicates a feeling state that is resistant to change and is not easily influenced by your partner’s behavior. Emotion inertia is commonly assessed by observing streams of emotion and noting the pattern of emotional expression over time (typically, the focus has been on negative emotions). High levels of emotion inertia have been associated with symptoms of depression. The researchers in this study used emotional inertia as an index of expressive rigidity.
A study of the effects of suppressing emotions during couples conflict
In this study, 105 heterosexual couples completed questionnaires assessing relationship satisfaction and then were asked to discuss “a recent incident in which their partner had done something that frustrated, upset, or angered them.” Couples then watched the videotape and each used a dial to continuously rate their levels of positive or negative emotion throughout the discussion. The discussions were also scored by raters who coded each person’s levels of emotional expression throughout the conversation.
Statistical procedures were used to create an average score for suppression for each conversation that measured the degree to which participants did not express emotion that was as intense as they reported experiencing. They also created scores that separately indexed suppression of positive emotions and suppression of negative emotions, since these may have different effects. An index of rigidity of use of suppression was also created (measuring the degree to which participants suppressed emotions in response to context or just used suppression regardless of context).
Results showed, as you would expect, there was a medium to large positive link between emotional experience and emotional expression for both men and women, indicating that people reporting generally more negative emotions in the discussions were also observed by coders to be expressing more negative emotions. Results also showed that couples suppressed their emotional expression more frequently than they expressed or enhanced their expression of feelings.
Does emotional suppression interfere with relationship satisfaction?
Researchers evaluated their primary prediction that suppression of negative emotions was more closely linked to relationship satisfaction when this strategy was applied more rigidly versus flexibly (more varied according to context). Results showed that “women’s greater suppression of negative emotions combined with more rigid use of suppression was associated with their own lower relationship satisfaction but not their partners.” In other words, women who suppressed their emotions more often and more rigidly were less satisfied with their marriages, but the partners of these women were not any less satisfied, compared to those whose partners were more varied in their use of suppression. Also, higher use of suppression wasn’t related to more dissatisfaction if suppression was used more flexibly. Interestingly, men’s levels of suppression were not linked to relationship satisfaction.
Additional analyses showed that more experience and expression of positive emotion was linked to being more satisfied with the relationship. Another finding was that more expression of positive emotions during conflict discussions predicted greater relationship satisfaction over and above emotional experience. This link of positive emotional interactions to happier relationships has been found in past studies as well.
Limitations of the study
- How couples behave in the lab may not generalize to the real world.
- Only heterosexual couples were studied.
- Relationship satisfaction was only measured at one point in time.
- The study can show an association of these emotion regulation patterns with relationship satisfaction but couldn't show causality.
Implications for improving your relationship satisfaction
These findings have some practical implications for improving your emotional communication in romantic relationships:
Chronically holding back negative feelings doesn't work. If you are a woman, suppressing your negative emotions doesn’t make your partner any more satisfied and may make you less satisfied with the relationship, especially if you do this rigidly without thinking about the context or potential efficacy of this strategy. Chronically suppressing emotions can make you feel more distant and resentful. When you chronically don’t express what you feel, you are expecting your partner to be a mind reader and depriving them of the opportunity to change their behavior or give you support. This means that your long-term relationship needs are less likely to be met by your partner.
On the other hand, if you suppress emotions strategically only when you feel your partner is too preoccupied or stressed to be able to hear them, this won’t make you feel less satisfied. This may be because you still express what you feel when the moment is right.
Try to bring in positive feelings, even in the midst of conflict. Expressing positive emotions when you are discussing conflictual topics is healthy for relationships even when you don’t actually feel the positive feelings as strongly. Everybody enjoys affection and appreciation, and this may take down the temperature of the fight and help calm your partner’s negative emotional reactivity. It may help remind your partner of your bond and connection even in moments of conflict. Expressing positive emotions like humor, interest, love, or contentment can go a long way towards navigating conflict successfully.
Dworkin, J. D., Zimmerman, V., Waldinger, R. J., & Schulz, M. S. (2018, November 26). Capturing Naturally Occurring Emotional Suppression as It Unfolds in Couple Interactions. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000524