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Writing to Heal: The Impact of Expressive Writing on Individual and Relational Well-Being

Relationships have their ups and downs. In many cases, people in relationships experience periods of enduring happiness, and also find themselves going through times that leave them feeling like their personal or relationship health could be improved. But to where does one turn when in need of a personal or relational boost? Research suggests one might pull out a pen and paper to write about their relationship. 

Several published reports indicate that expressive writing is a useful tool for mental, physical, and relational health management. Psychologists James Pennebaker and Janel Seagal posit that the act of constructing narratives through expressive writing is a natural human process that allows people to not only understand their experiences, but also to understand themselves.1 Simply, research seems to indicate that putting thoughts and feelings into the form of a story helps people establish or regain a sense of predictability and control over life.

A study published in Psychological Science found that when participants engaged in expressive writing (i.e., writing about their deepest emotions related to their relationship), they were more likely to use positive and negative emotion words—such as happy and love-- during daily exchanges with their significant others compared to participants in a control group asked to write about simple day-to-day activities.2 Importantly, the study revealed that increases in the use of positive emotion words were associated with higher levels of relational stability. Participants who used expressive writing to explore feelings about their relationship instead of simply journaling about their day were much more likely to use positive words when communicating with their significant other and remain in a relationship with their partner down the road. About 75% of participants who engaged in expressive writing were with their partners three months after study compared to approximately 50% of participants who simply wrote about their day.

Another report published in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice revealed that when couples experience an extramarital affair or emotional trauma in their relationship, expressive writing can be an important step in the recovery process.3 Using a replicated case study design, authors of this report suggest that expressive writing can be used-- along with the help of a counselor or therapist-- to successfully disclose an affair, process emotions that are likely to come up as a result of learning of an affair, or even explore why an affair happened in the first place. While the mechanisms that lead to wellbeing via expressive writing are still being explored, this study reports that the majority of participants who engaged in expressive writing had a greater understanding of, and more positive attitude toward, their partner. Taken together, research findings on expressive writing in close relationships appears promising for those interested in bolstering positive communication with a partner or enhancing well-being during times of strain or turmoil. 

So how might you apply this research to improve your own individual or relational well-being? Traditional expressive writing studies typically ask participants to write uninterrupted for about 15 minutes daily or weekly. You might write about positive aspects of your partner or relationship, such as the characteristics you enjoy most about your partner or perhaps a favorite vacation you took together. The important part, researchers say, is to write continuously for 15 minutes and to write freely about your emotions if and when they arise. Most studies report significant positive results after 4-6 expressive writing sessions, but one shouldn’t expect relationship problems to disappear after such a short time. Instead, look at expressive writing as an investment in your day-to-day well-being or long-term relational health. 

Expressive writing as a mechanism for relational enhancement seems promising to apply to variety of relationships, including partners, friends, and family members, but it has it’s limitations. One should be cautious of writing to enhance an abusive partner or sustain an abusive relationship. While expressive writing might help individuals heal from such situations, it’s certainly not a tool that should be used to support them. However, if you want to improve your individual or relational well-being in the light of possible uncertainty or instability, expressive writing might serve as an effective tool.

1Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999) Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, 1243-1254.

2Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006) How do I love thee? Let me count the words: The social effects of expressive writing. Psychological Science, 17, 660-664.

3Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K., & Baucam, D. H. (2004) Treating affair couples: Extending the written disclosure paradigm to relationship trauma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 155-159. 

Dr. Jessica Moore - Butler University 

Dr. Moore’s research focuses on the role of communication in relationship development and maintenance, including the ways in which new technologies are used to enhance and inhibit individual and relational well-being.


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