Yes, You Should Be Emotional While Arguing

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by Jovo Jovanovic / Stocksy

When it comes to dealing with conflicts—especially when actually in the midst of an argument with a loved one—common wisdom advocates for remaining calm, collected, and in control of one's emotions. But a new study suggests leaning into your emotions during an argument might actually be the key to a more productive, positive discussion.

Researchers studied 140 couples tasked with discussing a conflict for 10 minutes. One member of each couple was secretly given instructions to regulate their emotions in one of three ways: distancing themselves from their emotions (trying not to feel anything during the argument), suppressing their emotions (trying not to express any emotions that come up), and integrating their emotions into their thoughts, actions, and behaviors. This third approach—called integrative emotional regulation—is closely related to mindfulness and involves actively processing and expressing emotions throughout a conversation.

The results, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, showed that this integrative, mindful approach to handling emotions had a considerable impact on how successfully the conflict-heavy conversations panned out: In couples where one of the partners used it, both partners felt like their communication was better and the discussion more productive (as opposed to couples where emotional distancing, emotional suppression, or no particular emotional strategy was used during the conflict).

So why exactly is integrating and leaning into your emotions so beneficial to effective arguments?

"Those [using integrative emotional regulation] take a tolerant, accepting, and interested stance to their negative emotions, seeing them as providing important information, attempting to understand their sources and using the resulting knowledge to guide the adaptive, intentional regulation of their actions," the authors explain in the paper. This strategy "may allow people to talk about personal difficulties, ask for help, listen empathically when others talk about their own problems, and negotiate interpersonal conflicts openly but nonaggressively."

The person instructed to use this emotional awareness strategy particularly felt its positive effects, but their partner who was totally unaware of the strategy being used also felt them as well—a phenomenon researchers call the "secondhand smoke effect." Basically, when even one person in a conflict is taking stock of their emotions, listening to them, and expressing them, both people feel the benefits of that vulnerability.

As for the couples where someone was using emotional distancing or emotional suppression, the unaware partner indicated signs of more stress—perhaps because they were observing a partner who seemed to be uninvolved or unmoved during an important, serious conversation.

All this suggests that getting emotional during an argument may not be such a bad thing after all.

To clarify, being mindful of your emotions—especially the negative ones that tend to be bursting during a tense conversation or argument—is certainly not always easy. The researchers did find that people who paid close attention to their emotional experience also tended to be more stressed during the argument than those who distanced themselves from their emotions and those who weren't particularly tuned in. (The people who suppressed their emotions, however, were also pretty stressed.)

But the researchers noted that the stress felt by being emotional during the argument was short term and qualitatively different from the negative type of stress felt by the couples where emotional suppression was in play.

"The results support the hypothesis that taking an interest in one's emotional experience during a conflictual discussion has advantages, despite the higher experience of stress reported by the instructed partners," they write. "In our experimental context, the stress could have been generated by the direct engagement in a personally meaningful negative emotion-eliciting discussion. In this case, it is not surprising that stress was accompanied by interest, emotional awareness, a sense of guilt about the conflict, and a perception of fruitful discussion, presumably because of the higher engagement. … In other words, when increased stress is accompanied by higher engagement (reflected in greater interest and emotional awareness), it may also involve fruitful discussion."

So the next time you and a loved one are in a heated battle, ignore the voices in your head telling you to keep your emotions inside or to vanquish them altogether in favor of rationality. Your emotions are important internal guides, telling you what your needs and values are, and trusting them during an argument is the key to moving a conversation forward in a way that truly satisfies. And the added bonus here is that when you express yourself honestly, so will the other person.

So go ahead: Get emotional.

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