March 5, 2024

New study identifies emotional strategies linked to heightened satisfaction in romantic relationships

Showing how much you value your partner, sharing humor and laughter, and being a good listener are key predictors of relationship satisfaction, according to new research published in Current Psychology. The findings provide insight into how emotional regulation strategies are related to the functioning of romantic relationships.

The motivation behind this study was to explore how individuals regulate the emotions of their romantic partners, known as extrinsic emotion regulation, and its impact on relationship satisfaction. While much research has been done on intrinsic emotion regulation (how individuals regulate their own emotions), there is growing evidence that people also try to influence the emotions of others. For example, in a romantic relationship, one partner may attempt to make the other partner feel better after a stressful day.

However, it remains unclear which specific extrinsic emotion regulation strategies are most beneficial for enhancing relationship satisfaction. This study aimed to fill this gap by examining the relationship between eight different extrinsic emotion regulation processes and romantic relationship satisfaction.

“I was interested in this idea of extrinsic emotion regulation partially due to the inherent complexity of interpersonal relationships, but also the relevance for extrinsic emotion regulation in our daily lives and interpersonal interactions,” said study author Sarah A. Walker, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

“This is a relatively new field and there is a great opportunity to examine and explore the underlying mechanisms that influence how, and why, we try to influence the emotional experience of another person and of course how this relates to life outcomes for both the target of the regulation attempt, and the regulator (provider of regulation). I also really love the applied nature of this research in real-world situations from romantic relationships, to families, workplaces, and education (among others!).”

The researchers recruited a total of 277 participants, mostly in romantic relationships with opposite-sex partners, through an online platform called Prolific in May 2020. The participants’ average age was 36.8 years. All participants completed demographic questions along with assessments of extrinsic emotion regulation and relationship satisfaction.

To measure extrinsic emotion regulation, the researchers used the “Regulation of Others’ Emotions Scale” (ROES). This scale consisted of eight subscales, each assessing a different type of extrinsic emotion regulation strategy. Participants were asked to rate each item on a 6-point scale, from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The eight subscales were:

  • Expressive suppression: Encouraging the partner to avoid verbally or physically expressing their emotions.
  • Downward comparison: Comparing the partner’s situation to someone in a worse situation.
  • Humor: Trying to increase positive affect by making the partner laugh.
  • Distraction: Attempting to reduce negative affect by refocusing the partner’s attention away from the emotional event.
  • Direct action: Directly changing the partner’s situation to reduce negative affect.
  • Positive reappraisal: Encouraging the partner to shift their thoughts about a situation to increase positive affect.
  • Receptive listening: Encouraging the partner to express their emotions to help reduce negative affect.
  • Valuing: Expressing how much the partner is valued and special to increase positive affect.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that certain strategies were more effective than others in predicting relationship satisfaction. In particular, those who listened to their partner, made them laugh, and expressed how much they valued them tended to feel happier and more satisfied in their relationship. On the other hand, strategies like expressive suppression, downward comparison, distraction, direct action, and reappraisal did not significantly predict relationship satisfaction.

The findings contrast with previous research that mainly focused on intrinsic emotion regulation. For example, a prior study found that (intrinsic) cognitive reappraisal was related to better relationship satisfaction. But these findings might not apply to extrinsic processes. In fact, trying to use extrinsic reappraisal (encouraging your partner to see things differently) might be viewed negatively by the person on the receiving end.

“I think a key point from the work that I’ve done so far is that it’s not what we think we do to regulate someone else’s emotions that tends to relate to things like relationship quality or psychological wellbeing, but rather how that regulation attempt is perceived by the target of regulation,” Walker told PsyPost. “This is consistent with similar ideas in the relationship science literature, and it’s a really key point I think when it comes to relationships – whether it’s a romantic relationship, or relationships among family, colleagues or even within educational settings.”

However, the study used and cross-sectional design and therefore cannot establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Future research with longtidinal follow-ups is needed to understand if emotion regulation strategies lead to higher relationship satisfaction or if satisfaction leads to better emotional engagement, or both.

Nevertheless, the findings from this study provide researchers with an important foundation for further exploration and understanding of extrinsic emotion regulation in relationships.

“There are some caveats to this research – particularly in terms of what still needs to be examined,” Walker explained. “Although this gives us a really interesting starting point, this is really just the beginning when it comes to looking at extrinsic emotion regulation in romantic couples – or even within other types of interpersonal relationships from the dyadic or triadic perspectives.”

“What we really need to start addressing is not just where people agree with each other but also what drives the disagreement. So in this research we typically look at how much the couples agree on which extrinsic emotion regulation strategies were used, but an equally interesting question is what is it that underlies why they don’t agree to a greater extent? What drives the divergence in their responses. I think this kind of question starts to open up some additional areas of interest when it comes to this idea of extrinsic emotion regulation.”

The study, “People with higher relationship satisfaction use more humor, valuing, and receptive listening to regulate their partners’ emotions“, was authored by Sarah A. Walker, Rebecca T. Pinkus, Sally Olderbak, and Carolyn MacCann.

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