Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 02, 2018

Successful Marriages: Should You Argue or Should You Bite Your Tongue?

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No relationship is perfect. Conflict is bound to arise. We know there will be points in our marriages where our partners let us down, and vice versa. Fortunately, having conflict may not necessarily be detrimental to our relationships. What does matter however, is how we respond in the face of that conflict.

Erin Crockett from Southwestern University set out to better understand how our responses to such conflict impact our relationships. Crockett presented her research titled “Holding Your Tongue” is Costly: The Ironic Consequences of Avoiding Conflict in Newlyweds at the SPSP Annual Convention.

When conflict within a relationship occurs, we have two options; we can engage in conflict with our partner to address the issue or we can choose to bite our tongues and suppress the emotions.

Individuals who are suppressing their emotions are simply internalizing these feelings rather than addressing them. As Crockett indicated in her presentation, “suppression requires cognitive effort.” Holding in such emotions can create a rebound effect in which those emotions ‘seep out’ in other ways and lead to negative behaviors.

In her research, Crockett aimed to better understand these different responses to conflict and how they impact the relationship both in the short-term and long-term.

The results of this study indicated that when emotional suppression was engaged in by an individual, their partners reported that they were also engaging in more negative behaviors. This led both the actor and their partner to report being less satisfied with conflict resolution and to report less marital satisfaction. This supports the “seeping out hypothesis.”  In the short term however, they found that the effects for conflict were stronger across these negative outcomes.

Crockett and her colleagues went on to assess long-term outcomes. They found that more emotional suppression predicted reports of a decline in intimacy and an increase in severity of marital problems over time by both the actor and their partner. However, conflict engagement did not predict these outcomes.

Thus, this research found that the effect of conflict engagement was stronger than emotional suppression on outcomes, but only in the short-term.

Crockett’s study indicates that in the short-term people may fear conflict engagement because it may feel worse and can take a larger toll on your relationship in the moment. It may seem in the short-term that biting your tongue will be better for the relationship. However, suppression may be causing more harm than good over time. 

Ultimately, suppressing emotions may feel better on that day, but over time it may contribute to more negative outcomes in your relationship.

For the long-term health of the relationship, this research suggests that when tension occurs and you must choose between engaging in conflict or suppressing your emotions – it is better to address the issues in that moment rather than biting your tongue.


Written by: Kristan Russell, PhD Student at the University of Nevada, Reno
Presentation: "'Holding Your Tongue' is Costly: The Ironic Consequences of Avoiding Conflict in Newlyweds," part of After ‘I Do’: Factors Predicting Marital Outcomes symposium held on March 2, 2018.
Speaker: Erin Crockett, Southwestern University

Co-Speakers/Co-Authors: Lisa Neff, University of Texas and Marci Gleason, University of Texas.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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