Conflict is inevitable in any close relationship, and if the argument is productive, the experience can strengthen the bonds between the partners and lead to increased intimacy. But because disagreements are such emotionally charged events, it’s easy to stray off topic as well as to say and do things that are hurtful to the other person and destructive to the relationship as a whole. The key is to regulate emotions so they’re directed toward a satisfactory resolution of the issue at hand.
For the last few decades, cognitive therapists have been teaching their clients to regulate their emotions during conflicts in a couple of ways. One approach is emotional distancing, in which you attempt to “step outside yourself,” to acknowledge your emotions are there but to observe them as an outsider rather than experiencing them in their full force. It takes some practice, but it is possible to distance yourself from your experience in the moment, almost as if you were outside your body, in a process psychologists call dissociation. For example, it’s likely that many first responders engage in emotional distancing as they deal with emergency situations to avoid getting overwhelmed by the carnage and human suffering they have to deal with. Emotional distancing can be thought of as an attempt to minimize emotional experience.
Another approach is suppression of expressive behavior, in which you try to hide your true feelings from your partner. We’ve all learned to hide our emotions or even to fake them in certain social situations as a matter of politeness. When your Aunt Mildred gives you that same ugly sweater for Christmas again this year, you don’t let your feelings of disgust show on face. You’ll even muster a fake smile as you tell you her how much you "just love" the gift.
Social situations in which we have to suppress our emotional expressions usually involve fairly low levels of emotional arousal. But emotions always run high in confrontations with our mate because so much is at stake, since our intimate relationships usually mean more to us than anything else in world. To a large extent they define who we are, and when they’re disrupted, our whole life is thrown out of kilter. Suppression of expressive behavior can be thought of as an attempt to minimize emotional expression. However, it comes at the cost of increased stress, at least in the moment.
In recent years, a “new wave” has swept through the field of psychotherapy, based on the concept of mindfulness. This means being completely aware in the moment with full acceptance of anything you experience. Mindfulness derives from meditation practices such as yoga and Zen. A common mantra for dealing with the random thoughts and feelings that come to mind is: “Let it come, let it be, let it go.” Mindfulness is about accepting emotions as they are—whether they’re pleasant or not.
Another root of mindfulness comes from an idea in Ancient Greek philosophy known as eudemonia. Although often translated as “happiness,” the term is more accurately rendered as “well-being.” According to Aristotle, the good life involves not the pursuit of pleasure but rather an acceptance of the full richness of human experience, and this includes the bad along with the good.
On this view, negative emotions like anger, fear, and disgust aren’t just unpleasant events that we somehow have to get through. Rather, they provide us with important information about current problems in our life. If we accept them and examine them carefully, they may even point us in the direction we need to go to make things better.
In mindfulness therapy, clients are taught a technique called integrative emotion regulation. Instead of distancing yourself from your emotions or hiding them from your partner during a conflict, you allow yourself to experience your feelings without judging them. Anger is certainly an unpleasant experience, but you also recognize that it’s telling you something important, namely that there’s a problem in your relationship that needs to be dealt with. So instead of suppressing or distancing yourself from the unpleasant feelings you’re experiencing, you use them as motivation to find a productive resolution.
Emotion regulation sounds like a good idea, but how effective is it in practice? That’s the question Israeli psychologist Bat-Hen Shahar and colleagues explored in a study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
In this study, the researchers invited 140 romantic couples to come into their laboratory—to have an argument. The couples were divided into three groups, one for each of the emotional regulation techniques we just discussed—emotional distancing, suppression of expressive behavior, and integrative emotion regulation.
As each couple arrived at the lab, the partners were escorted to separate rooms, where they first filled out questionnaires about demographics and overall relationship satisfaction. One member of the couple was then selected to be the “trained partner,” leaving the other as the “naïve partner.” The trained partner was given instruction on one of the three emotional regulation techniques, and they were asked to be sure to use the technique during the following discussion with their partner.
One of the questionnaires the couples had filled out individually asked about common topics of conflict, and each partner had been asked to indicate which were most pressing in their relationship. The experimenter then selected the issue that was ranked highest by both partners. When the two were reunited, they were asked to discuss that issue for ten minutes.
Afterward, each partner was once again escorted to a separate room, where they filled out additional questionnaires assessing their experience. These measures included level of engagement, stress, and anger during the discussion as well as their feelings on how productive it was.
The participants in the integrative emotion regulation group were more satisfied with the resolution of the discussion than were those in the other two groups. Furthermore, this positive perception was true for both the trained partner, who intentionally used the technique, and for the naïve partner, who had no idea their mate had been taught to regulate their emotions. However, the benefits of integrative emotion regulation came at the cost of higher stress levels for the trained partner, although not for their naïve mate.
The other two emotional regulation techniques led to less satisfactory results for both partners. Moreover, the naïve partner reported higher levels of stress in either of these conditions than when their trained partner used integrative emotion regulation. While the trained partner who used emotional distancing reported lower levels of stress, this “keep it calm” approach didn’t seem to spread to the other partner. And trained partners who suppressed their emotional expressions reported stress levels as high as those who used integrative emotion regulation, but with less satisfactory conclusions to the conflict and higher levels of stress for their partners as well.
Overall, the researchers concluded that integrative emotion regulation was the best approach to resolving conflicts. Although the trained partner experienced heightened levels of stress as they “fully accepted” the unpleasant emotions they were experiencing, their partner was less stressed and the resolution of the conflict was more satisfactory for both parties.
It’s also possible that the elevated stress levels are only a temporary effect of the approach, in that prior research suggests integrative emotion regulation has an inoculating effect. When participants were asked to engage in the technique while watching a horror movie, their stress levels were quite high. But when asked to do this again on a subsequent occasion, stress levels were much lower. Like a fever that leaves us immune to the disease, it’s very unpleasant to fully accept negative emotions in the moment. But once we learn that we can handle them, they no longer feel so overwhelming.
As we practice mindfulness and integrative emotion regulation, we come to experience negative emotions for what they are—useful sources of information about how we need to act for our own well-being. Learning to accept each negative feeling as an important part of our life experience, we become like the Zen master who chants: “Let it come, let it be, let it go.”
Shahar, B.-H., Kalman-Halevi, M., & Roth, G. (2018). Emotion regulation and intimacy quality: The consequences of emotional integration, emotional distancing, and suppression. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication.