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Should Distressed Couples Deal with Emotions — If So, How?

Research provides insight into how couples address problems when they are first seeking help.

Relationship satisfaction, with romantic partners perhaps more so than with any other people in our lives, are a major determinant of personal satisfaction. When we experience relationship distress, the overall impact on health can be very negative, especially over a long span of time. Research shows the detrimental effects of poor relationship quality on health, including reduced lifespan and increased risks for illness including forms of cancer, heart disease, the need for surgical procedures, depression, sleep disturbance, chemical dependency, and other problems.

Healthy relationships, by contrast, convey advantages on par with regular diet and exercise. Marital support, when effective, is helpful — but failed efforts to support characterized by undermining self-efficacy of partners (e.g. via harsh feedback) can worsen health issues. Finally, health issues and relationship quality can work with or against one another (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2017). Illness presents a challenge to relationships, through which we can either grow closer or be driven apart, and relationship quality can predispose to either illness or health, in complex inter-relationship:

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Source: Kiecolt-Glaser et al, 2017

What does emotion regulation encompass?

Because of the impact of relationship quality on health, understanding how to optimize factors contributing to relationship satisfaction is crucial for developing effective interventions, and avoiding interventions which may backfire. Emotion regulation is thought to be a key component of relationship satisfaction, though research is needed. How much does individual ability to cope with emotions influence relationship health, and how does individual coping style interact in couples to shape outcomes? Is it always good to deal with emotions, or is it sometimes better to wait?

Emotion regulation is “the ability to successfully alter or modulate emotions” (Rick et al., 2017), and is a component of established couples therapy approaches. Emotionally Focused Therapy, for example, enhances awareness of and effective communication about emotions, and the Gottman model uses emotion regulation to assist in conflict resolution. Understanding how different emotion regulation strategies play out in distressed couples is therefore totally important for determining what works and what does not work. We have to look at individual factors, and just as important, interactional factors between partners in a couple. In addition, for heterosexual couples, gender differences are of great interest.

Emotion regulation and relationship satisfaction in couples entering therapy

To investigate these questions, Rick and colleagues (2017), recruited 104 couples starting treatment to study how their relationship satisfaction was connected with different approaches to emotion regulation. They note that emotion regulation is a social and individual phenomenon, and moreover that the social context both shapes and is shaped by how individuals regulate emotions. This can be very subtle, operating under the radar to facilitate smooth, collaborate and mutually-satisfying navigation of conflict and dissent, to glaring explosions which happen every time someone tries to bring up something challenging and important to one’s relationships, familiar factors which include finances, sex, children, family issues, and various personal and professional aspirations requiring tackling difficult decisions.

In the discussion of emotion regulation, Rick and colleagues emphasize Gratz and Roemer’s (2004) work on emotion regulation, defining six dimensions: “(a) acceptance of emotions (acceptance), (b) ability to engage in goal-directed behavior during negative emotions (goals), © impulse control during negative emotions (impulse), (d) awareness of emotions (awareness), (e) access to and use of emotion regulation strategies (strategies), and (f) clarity regarding emotions (clarity).” Strategies in these areas influence how feelings take shape and are expressed in thoughts and actions, and in turn how relationships evolve and feedback on how relationship challenges are expressed, in a cyclical and dynamic way over time.

Researchers recruited these 104 couples from a psychotherapy clinic over a 5 year span. The couples were heterosexual, on average in their late 30s with a broad age range, and 56 percent Caucasian. Seventy percent were married, and the remainder in committed exclusive relationships. They completed several rating scales, including the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale to assay the 6 dimensions discussed above and the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (Dyadic Satisfaction Subscale), to measure individual satisfaction within the couple.


In keeping with prior research, they found that men were on average more satisfied with their relationships than women, especially true for couples in therapy. While women reported greater awareness of their emotions, men were better able to pursue goals effectively in the face of negative emotion. Both men and women reported higher relationship satisfaction when they believed that had tools to deal with difficult emotions, presumably because of reduced feelings of helplessness. The use of adaptive strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal, was associated with greater satisfaction, in keeping with resilience literature showing higher resilience with active coping strategies.

They were surprised to find that there was a small but significant effect that higher awareness and acceptance of negative emotions was associated with lower relationship satisfaction. A common belief is that when we face challenges, dealing with emotions directly is useful — and it often is. However, it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Dealing with emotions may be useful, but it depends. Being aware of and accepting emotions is a big step. If we aren’t ready to deal with them, individually and together, strong emotions (and the implications of whatever they are about e.g. a significant conflict) can be destabilizing and problematic. If I tell you how hurt I’ve been, rather than being supportive and understanding, you may have a negative reaction, feeling threatened, guilty and/or accused (especially if there is a history of toxic interactions), and protect yourself, perhaps by with defensive aggression or withdrawal, which becomes a repeating cycle.

Partner effects were interesting, as well. Women’s lower acceptance of emotions was associated with men’s greater relationship satisfaction, perhaps because shutting out emotions allowed men to believe things were OK. It’s important to recall here that these were couples seeking therapy, who had not yet been in therapy. Similarly, men’s relationships satisfaction was higher when women showed greater impulse control. It makes sense that restraint of potentially injuries and destructive behavior is going to increase relationship satisfaction, but addition research is required to see how much of this is actually gender-linked, and the overall effect was small.

What does it mean?

Overall, active coping strategies were associated with higher relationship satisfaction, and emotional awareness and acceptance with lower relationship satisfaction, in this sample of couples seeking therapy. Couples who have been in therapy and worked on their relationship successfully tend to have greater awareness and acceptance of emotions, coupled with the ability to regulate emotions individually and mutually, though every couple will find its own ways of dealing with conflict and life challenges.

They found that, contrary to expectations, in this sample of distressed couples early on in therapy, emotional awareness and acceptance were associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie — and work on the background, preparatory issues (including learning better shared and individual coping strategies) before going after the harder problems. Denial and distraction are excellent short-term strategies, allowing time for the situation to cool off and for people to get out of the fight-flight mindset, but in the long run become entrenched in detachment and avoidance. Over the course of a relationship, ignoring issues contributes to loneliness, dissatisfaction and a variety of negative outcomes, especially if we remain together for important reasons in the face of significant relationship dissatisfaction.

Many couples find that openly addressing feelings is helpful, but have to work out when and how to do so in order to meet the needs of their partners and avoid unnecessary and un-useful strain, such as comes up when one person insists on discussing an issue when the other person isn’t comfortable or ready. On the other hand, if there is never a good time to talk about difficult issues and share emotions, it won’t work either. Collaborative coping and safe opportunities to talk about challenging issues can lead to greater relationship satisfaction, but require a level of communication and planning to achieve.

For interested readers, the following graph is models the study findings:

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Source: Rick et al., 2017

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