Every person copes with conflict and stress in their own way. Some people are confrontational and want to address the issue immediately. Others prefer to avoid the issue at hand and instead mask their distressing emotions. Some people choose to deny the emotional experience altogether, pretending that they are not feeling anything at all. In the context of romantic relationships,emotional honesty is essential. Couples benefit most by sharing their feelings with one another. When conflict arises, couples who disclose their emotional stance and share how and why the conflict disturbs them, have a better chance of relationship success than those who avoid their feelings altogether. This practice of avoiding emotional disturbances and repressing emotions was the basis for a recent study led by Ryan B. Seedall of the Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development at Utah State University.
Seedall wanted to find out if partners’ physiological responses, as measured through skin conductance tests, were consistent with their emotional and verbal responses. Based on this, Seedall believed he would be able to shed some light on the negative effects of repressive coping and incongruent emotional expression in romantic relationships. For his study, Seedall enlisted 63 couples and videotaped them while they discussed a conflict amongst themselves and then again in a structured environment with a therapist. He found that the partners with high levels of avoidance did not all have increases in emotional arousal, they did demonstrate greater inconsistencies between emotional expression and emotional arousal. Specifically, those with high avoidance and high emotional arousal actually reported more positive toward their partners than those with low avoidance or high avoidance and low arousal.
This significant lack of congruency in emotional manifestation is particularly concerning, on the both personal and relational levels. Personally, suppressing strong emotional reactions and avoiding them can increase stress levels and put someone at risk for mental and physical health problems. Relationally, this pattern of incongruence may result in short-term benefits of less hostility, disagreement and external emotional arousal. “However, it also may point toward an unwillingness to address the more difficult issues that inevitably arise in relationships, thereby putting long-term relationship satisfaction at risk,” said Seedall. In fact, research shows that individuals with high levels of emotional avoidance have higher rates of conflict in the long-run and also report lower levels of relationship satisfaction than those who face their problems as they arise. Incongruence can also impede progress in therapeutic settings. In general, the findings of this study show how, in the context of romantic relationships, the effects of emotional honesty are far reaching.
Seedall, Ryan B., and Karen S. Wampler. Emotional congruence within couple interaction: The role of attachment avoidance. Journal of Family Psychology 26.6 (2012): 948-58. Print.
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