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His and Hers: Emotions During Cooperation and Conflict

If you’ve ever tried to work out a problem with your partner, you know it can be a situation with tension, heightened negative emotion and perhaps a face-off of epic proportions until one of you “wins.” If one partner disengages by avoiding the issue or not treating it seriously, the other partner may feel that the discussion falls flat and nothing is truly resolved. The cooperation of both partners is essential when coping with disagreements; it plays a role in how emotions rise and fall during and after conflict.

Heterosexual couples recruited from Craigslist demonstrated this link between cooperation and emotions in a study where they were videotaped while discussing their health behaviors (e.g., “What are some of the things you do that have a 'negative' impact on each other’s lifestyle or on each other’s attempts to be healthy?” and “What aspects of your shared lifestyle cause problems for you when it comes to being healthy?”) for 20 minutes.1 Next, the couples watched a video of their discussion and used an electronic rating dial to give continual ratings of the emotions they recalled feeling during the discussion -- sort of an emotional play-by-play! The dial was marked “very negative” on one side and “very positive” on the other; participants could twist the dial to either side or anywhere in between to feed their ratings into a computer. Research assistants also viewed the videos and rated how much each couple cooperated (e.g., expressed their thoughts openly, listened to each other’s perspectives, compromised).

When the partners engaged in high cooperation, two interesting patterns emerged. Men’s emotions tended to mimic their partner’s earlier emotions. For example, if she was more positive, he became more positive. Women’s emotions, however, strayed in the opposite direction. If he was more positive, she became less positive. We should also note that these patterns disappeared when either partner was cooperating less, possibly because if one partner isn’t “into it,” the other partner has nothing to work with. It would be a lot like talking on a dead phone, with nothing coming from the other end and a caller who’s getting nowhere.

Why might men and women’s emotions cycle differently? It’s possible that men prefer to go along with their partner’s wishes to avoid arguing and reach a quick solution. Women might prefer a bit more give-and-take in the discussion, working together to find a mutually satisfying solution. Thus, the next time you and your partner have an issue to discuss, pick a time and place where you’ll have each other’s full attention. Open up, give each other feedback, and listen to what the other person has to say, while keeping in mind that your partner may not solve problems same way you do. Working together, instead of against each other, is a great start to solving relationship problems.

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1Randall, A. K., Post, J. H., Reed, R. G., & Butler, E. A. (in press, 2013). Cooperating with your romantic partner: Associations with interpersonal emotion coordination. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407513481864

Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects. 

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