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The Benefit of Emotions During Disagreements With a Partner

Research reveals how turning toward emotions during conflict can help couples.

Disclaimer: Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships.

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

No couple sees eye to eye on everything, and thank goodness for that. It means the relationship is comprised of independently thinking individuals. So when romantic partners deal with an issue that causes friction, what’s important for them to bear in mind as they strive to communicate as constructively as possible?

Arguably, many of us would likely propose steps such as listening, speaking respectfully, paying attention to our tone of voice and body language, seeking to understand our partner’s perspective, and endeavoring to compromise and find a happy medium. And to be sure, these are valuable approaches. Yet, if we only shine the spotlight on how we behave toward our partner during a disagreement, science suggests that we’ll miss something else that’s worthy of our attention: How we relate to our own emotions.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, a team of researchers examined how people’s responses to unpleasant emotions can impact communication with their romantic partner during a disagreement. In this experiment, the investigators asked couples to talk about an issue they were at odds over. One of the partners in each couple received directions on how to respond to their own emotions during the dispute, and the other partner was not aware of this.

So what exactly were these directions? Well, it depends on which group they were in because the researchers randomized the partners to receive guidance on how to respond to their emotions in one of four ways:

1. Integrative emotional regulation: People who respond in this way turn toward emotions that don’t feel good with genuine open-mindedness, engagement, and curiosity. They try to figure out what’s bringing about these emotions and try to use the emotions to enhance their self-awareness and make more effective decisions.

The investigators told partners in this group the following: “During the discussion with your partner, try to take an interest in your emotions; thus, try to understand what you are feeling. In other words, during the discussion, try to be as attentive to your emotions as possible, and try to see how your emotions are related to your goals and wishes during the discussion.

2. Emotional distancing: People who react to unpleasant emotions in this manner either downplay and deemphasize what they feel or try to evade their emotions.

The researchers advised partners in this group as follows: “During the conversation with your partner, try not to feel anything. In other words, try to relate to what is happening between the two of you as objectively and rationally as possible. We know it can be difficult, but please, during the conversation, concentrate matter-of-factly on the disagreements between you and try to be emotionally detached as much as possible.

3. Expressive suppression: People who respond to undesirable emotions using this method make an effort to conceal what they’re feeling from another person, such as their romantic partner.

Partners in this group received these directions: “If you have any feelings during the conversation, please try your best not to let those feelings show. Please, for the whole conversation, try to act so that your partner will not know whether you are feeling anything at all.

4. Control group: The partners in this group didn’t receive any directions to respond to unwanted emotions in a particular way. Instead, the research team asked them to behave just as they normally would.

The investigators asked partners in the control group to do this: “During the discussion with your partner, try to behave as naturally as possible, as you usually behave when you discuss this issue.

The research team also examined how both partners felt about their experience speaking with each other, including how difficult it felt and how constructive their dialogue seemed.

The results of the study suggest that how people respond to their own unpleasant emotions when addressing friction with their partner matters. When one partner tried integrative emotion regulation, both partners viewed each other as being more thoughtful while they talked. Not only that, but both partners felt like they made more headway on the disagreement than they had before.

And what about the other three approaches? When it comes to laying the groundwork for a more constructive and fruitful conversation, turning toward emotions that don’t feel good with open, reflective curiosity surpassed them.

Now it should be said that the folks who used integrative emotion regulation felt a higher level of stress than the people who reacted as they typically would. But when we think about the context, this makes sense. In fact, the research team actually anticipated this would happen because of the emotional strain that can arise when someone actively focuses on what they feel while addressing a dispute with their partner. Yet, despite this greater emotional discomfort, both partners felt they had a more effective dialogue.

Now, if you’re like many people and you haven’t considered treating your emotions as a potentially helpful, illuminating resource, be kind to yourself. It’s not exactly intuitive to do this. It can feel much more compelling to respond to our emotions like enemies to be dodged (e.g., "I don’t want to feel sad.”), secrets to be kept (e.g., “I don’t want to let anyone see that I feel scared.”), or outright commands (e.g., “I’m so angry that I have to yell.”).

So if you decide to try integrative emotion regulation, give yourself permission to start from a place that feels workable. For example, you might consider the following:

  • Take the first step with an emotion that you already allow yourself to feel. For example, if you judge yourself for feeling scared or angry, but allow yourself to feel sad, then sadness would be a good emotion with which to begin.
  • Practice at times when the emotion you don’t want is at a mild level. Try exploring what you feel and using this insight to make effective choices when you’re slightly annoyed, a little sad, or a bit nervous, to name a few examples.
  • Allow yourself space to practice on your own. Rather than expect yourself to multi-task and turn toward your feelings when you’re talking with someone else, you might try this initially when you have some alone time to reflect.
  • Give yourself permission not to use integrative emotion regulation in every situation. Just as a single tool is not the most useful one for every job, there may be times when you find that turning toward your emotions is not the answer. For example, some researchers believe that when we’re facing circumstances that bring up extremely powerful, distressing emotions, evading our emotions and diverting our focus elsewhere may be a preferable place to start before moving on to other approaches.

Thank you for reading.

References

Gross, J.J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26, 1-26.

Roth, G., Benita, M., Amrani, C., Shachar, B.H., Asoulin, H., Moed, A., Bibi, U., & Kanat-Maymon, Y. (2014). Integration of negative emotional experience versus suppression: Addressing the question of adaptive functioning. Emotion, 14, 908-919.

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, 3343-3361.

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