Once a month I read an article that I enjoy reading and that I find relevant for psychotherapy. I summarize it and discuss how I see it as relevant for clients on my blog. Do you have questions, comments, or suggestions for other articles to read? Leave a comment below the post.
Expressing how we feel to other people – particularly the ones we trust the most – can help buffer our stress. Sharing our feelings with others can also potentialize our joy when we have something to celebrate. But sometimes factors may exist that inhibit our ability to share what we feel. In this blog post, I discuss an article that presents evidence for the idea that we are more prone to sharing our emotions when we feel we have a responsive partner by our side. Below I discuss how perceived partner responsiveness is important to our relationships and how couples therapy can help partners become more responsive to one other.
Perceived Partner Responsiveness Encourages Emotional Expression
In the psychological research literature, a number of studies demonstrate that expressing how we feel can help us to regulate our emotions. In addition to getting the assistance we need, the expression of our emotions also helps us to build stronger bonds with other people. Despite the benefits we can have, showing how we feel can sometimes be difficult. But what helps us feel confident to share our emotions?
A considerable body of literature exists in psychology about perceived partner responsiveness, a concept introduced by Dr. Harry Reis. In this specific study, Yan Ruan, Dr. Reis, and their colleagues found evidence that people are more prone to express their emotions to their partners when they perceive them to be responsive. In other words, if you anticipate that your partner will understand what you are going through and that they will care for you, you are more likely to feel safe and open up. If you feel afraid about your partner’s response, you will be much less likely to express how you feel. If we presume our partner may reject how we feel inside, we will likely try to protect ourselves from ending up feeling not understood and even unloved.
In this article, Ms. Ruan and Dr. Reis and colleagues also discuss how perceiving a partner as being responsive is related to having what is called a “secure attachment”. I have discussed the importance of attachment security in a previous post, but, in short, securely attached individuals have a sense of confidence that others will be there when they need them. Compared with insecurely attached individuals, secure ones are better able to express their needs and fears, which makes them better able to have their needs met.
Implications for clients I see during therapy
But what does responsiveness have to do with couples that are facing relationship problems? When I see couples for relationship therapy, they usually have been trying to find ways to protect their relationship. Many times though, the same strategies they use to protect them, can be perceived by the other partner as the exact opposite. It is not hard to imagine how protecting oneself can be seen as a lack of responsiveness, which then contributes to the maintenance of relationship problems.
If we think about a couple, Mary and Peter, who see me to help improve their relationship, it may well be that Mary tries to avoid conversations about how to raise their son as she knows from experience the topic of childrearing will lead to a heated discussion. By avoiding the topic of childrearing, Mary t may have the intention to protect themselves from the stress that seems likely to come. But not only may Peter feel rejected if he brings up the topic (fearing Mary does not care about them), either partner will also feel like they are going at it alone, while we know that dealing with problems together reduces the burden of a potentially stressful environment. And this cycle can escalate further; feelings of rejection could lead Peter to engage in eager attempts to get attention from Mary. Experiencing intense demands and criticism may make Mary to try even harder to escape from this interaction. As a result, both Mary and Peter will unwillingly feel hurt and disconnected.
Sharing emotions within the safety of a therapeutic session can feel very different from the way partners do by themselves at home. In couples therapy partners have the chance to create new patterns of interactions with the guidance of a therapist. During couples therapy, I focus on building a safe environment that helps either partner take a step back, identify their cycles in the interaction, and express their most vulnerable feelings to each other.
Limitations when applying Ruan et al. to therapy
Many of my clients are older and are together for a longer time than the students who participated in the two studies from Ruan and colleagues (in their second study, for example, the maximum relationship duration was 80 months). It’s unknown how these results would generalize to an older age group and in longer-term relationships. Further, the study they conducted is a so-called “observational study”, which makes it more difficult for me, as a therapist, to know whether an intervention to make couples more responsive to each other helps them to become more emotionally expressive, but it stands to reason it will.
These studies also did not examine the emotional regulation outcome from sharing emotions to each other. This means that we don’t know what the impact of sharing or suppressing one’s feelings were on the participants’ relationships.
Distressed couples that come to therapy are usually having difficulty being responsive to each other. When triggered, partners may experience a need to suppress their emotions or even to overly express them. My work as a therapist focuses on helping you to build a safer interaction in which you feel more comfortable to express your emotions. My goal is to make you feel more confident in the way that you share your feelings and that neither of you unwillingly pushes the other away from each other.