How can you ask your partner to change a bad habit or unhealthy behavior without making them feel angry, guilty, or ashamed?
Similarly, how can you regulate your own emotions when asked by a partner to modify a certain behavior?
The answer may depend on the chosen emotion regulation strategy—the strategy of influencing the expression and experience of emotions (eg, type, intensity, duration).
A recent investigation by Sisson et al., published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationshipssuggests the use of the emotion regulation strategy of cognitive reappraisalcompared to suppressionis more effective and linked with better change results.
Before discussing the study, let us clarify what is meant by suppression and reappraisal. Suppression refers to avoiding the expression of emotions (ie, putting on a poker face). Cognitive reappraisal refers to changing how one thinks about a situation in order to change its emotional impact (ie, looking on the bright side of things).
Investigating Personality Change and Emotion Regulation Strategies
Sample: 111 Canadian couples; all in a romantic relationship (average of four years); the average age of 27 (range of 18 to 57 years); 48 percent women; 76 percent in a committed but unmarried relationship, 23 percent married; 30 percent European, 17 percent South Asian, 16 percent multi-ethnic; 40 percent with high school or some college education, 40 percent with a bachelor’s degree.
Procedure: In-lab sessions included six-minute discussions about what one partner (the agent) would like to change about the other (the target, These roles were later reversed. Examples of requested changes were those related to behaviors (eg, exercise, phone usage) and personal characteristics (eg, communication skills, sensitivity). Motivation to change was then measured. An online follow-up survey was conducted two weeks later.
- Emotion regulation. Items adapted from the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire evaluated the extent of engaging in suppression (eg, “I kept my negative emotions to myself”) and reappraisal (eg, “When I wanted to change my emotional experience, I changed the way I thought about the situation”).
- Change results. Change motivation was assessed using the item, “To what extent will you put in the effort to make this change for your partner?” After two weeks, to evaluate effortparticipants answered whether they tried to make the changes their partner requested and had success—and if the partners similarly tried to improve and were successful in doing so.
Sample: 151 couples, followed for eight weeks; average age of 28 (range of 18 to 57); 51 percent women; together for an average of five years; 12 percent engaged and 29 percent married; 68 percent in Canada and 32 percent in the US; 78 percent heterosexual and 10 percent bisexual; 36 percent European, 15 percent multi-ethnic, 14 percent East Asian; 40 percent with a bachelor’s degree.
Procedure: During an initial survey and phone call, participants listed aspects of their partner and themselves they wanted to be changed. For example, becoming more patient and organized or developing better spending habits. They then completed additional questionnaires and weekly surveys.
- Targets’ and agents’ emotion regulation. Targets reported how often they used suppression and reappraisal for changes they and their partner had requested from each other. Sample item (suppression): “I made sure not to express negative emotions to my partner when I was feeling them.”
- Targets’ change progress. Motivation, effort, and success were rated. For instance (item on partner motivation): “This week, my partner was motivated to make this change.” Change progress was evaluated as a composite of effort, motivation, and success.
- Target actual/agent ideal overlap. The extent of meeting the partner’s ideals was rated. Agents also noted the extent to which their romantic partner met their ideals.
The results showed target suppression was not associated with change or progress.
Furthermore, the authors noted, suppression was costly: “Targets’ greater suppression across the diary compared to others was associated with both partners reporting that the target was…further from the agent’s ideal.” Why?
Perhaps because targets who regularly used suppression to hide their negative emotions felt inauthentic and doubted if they were living up to the ideals of their partners, the lack of authenticity may have also been noticed by the partners, which could explain why partners perceived the targets as being even further from their ideals.
Another possibility is that suppression magnifies negative emotions. So, “agents may have perceived targets to be upset about their request or unwilling to change.”
Reappraisal, in contrast, was associated with greater change progress—both as reported by targets and perceived by agents—and with targets feeling closer to the ideals of their romantic partners.
These results agree with research on the benefits of cognitive reappraisal as an effective emotion regulation strategy—to reduce loneliness, promote healthy eating, etc. Indeed, cognitive reappraisal is a common component of many effective psychological treatments for anxiety and depression.
How to Use Reappraisal
The cause of conflicts in romantic relationships is sometimes one partner’s annoying, unhealthy, or dysfunctional behavior and his or her inability or unwillingness to change. In the investigations reviewed here, the emotion regulation strategy of reappraisal (vs. suppression) correlated with “greater change progress and partner-ideal overlap.” This suggests reappraisal is more likely to promote conflict resolution and successful partner change.
How can you use reappraisal in your daily life? Reframe the stressor or emotion-eliciting situation in a way that increases positive emotions or decreases negative emotions.
Here is an example: Imagine your partner making a (reasonable) request—eg, asking you to stop checking your phone during dinner or to work on becoming more assertive in social situations. Suppose your initial reaction to this request is embarrassment, shame, or guilt, followed by defensive anger; maybe the thought that he/she “hates me” or “finds fault with everything I do!”
But what if you reinterpreted the meaning of this request so it is no longer a sign of petty fault-finding but your partner’s genuine care, concern, and commitment to you? Or if you reframed it as an opportunity to grow and expand your skills and competencies? Wouldn’t that make you feel better, more motivated, and willing to work on improving yourself?