The Consequences of Suppressing Affective Displays in Romantic Relationships: A Challenge and Threat Perspective

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Emotion suppression is one of the most studied topics in emotion regulation. However, little is known about how response-focused regulation strategies unfold in romantic relationships from the perspectives of both emotion regulators and their interaction partners. Using the biopsychosocial (BPS) model of challenge and threat as an organizing framework, 2 experiments examined effects of expressive suppression (vs. expression) on affective, cognitive, physiological, and behavioral processes in regulators and their romantic partners. In Experiment 1 a crowd-sourced sample of individuals currently in a romantic relationship simulated scenarios in which the self or partner engaged in response-focused emotion regulation (expression or suppression of affective displays). Suppressors expected worse outcomes compared with expressers. However, individuals on the receiving end of suppression (suppression targets) did not differ from expression targets. Experiment 2 then examined romantic couples’ responses to suppression/expression in vivo. Regulators were randomly assigned to suppress/express affective displays and partners (targets) were unaware of the manipulation. Suppressors and suppression targets exhibited more malignant physiological responses (increased vascular resistance and elevated cortisol reactivity) during an emotional conversation and reduced intimacy behavior as measured with a novel touch task. Consequences for relationship processes are discussed.

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