Health & Well-Being

Emotion Work

A subtle but vital way of supporting your partner

There are lots of ways partners in an intimate relationship can support each other. While all have their value, emotional support is by far the most important. We know we’re emotionally supported when we believe we can go to our partner in our time of need. We might confide in friends and family members, but we wouldn’t do it to the same extent as with our spouse—nor would we want to.

Knowing that we can rely on our partner for comfort, security, and advice makes us feel like we’re not facing our problems alone. That enhances feelings of connectedness, how we feel about our partner, and how we value our relationship.

Much of the emotional support we give and receive is overt and straightforward. We have a problem or we feel upset and so we go to our partner for help, or empathy, or sympathy. It’s obvious within a short amount of time whether or not we received the support we were looking for.

But there’s a more subtle form of emotional support, what is referred to as emotion work. Emotion work is defined as the management of one’s own feelings, and the expression of those feelings in a way that enhances the relationship.

When we do emotion work, we regulate our emotions, but the real goal is to regulate our partner’s emotions. We provide something observable to our partner, a facial expression or body language, that is interpreted as a positive communication and so affects their emotions.

Here’s a simple example. When we see our partner dressed up for the evening, we tell them how nice they look. Whether or not we actually believe it is irrelevant; we’re saying that to make our partner feel good. Emotion work comes in many forms, and can include showing affection, apologizing after an argument, bringing up problems that need to be addressed, and making sure you do your part to making the household run smoothly. It’s not always easy, but it does pay off in the quality of your relationship…

Emotion work comes in many forms, and can include showing affection, apologizing after an argument, bringing up problems that need to be addressed, and making sure you do your part to making the household run smoothly.

Now, on the face of it, we might think emotion work is insincere, dishonest, or manipulative. Well, maybe in some respects it is. But we practice emotion work all the time in all types of relationships. Saying something nice or supportive to another person which is the opposite of what we’re actually thinking is a good example.

Of course, we could instead take a brutally honest approach, saying exactly what’s on our mind regardless of how it makes the other person feel. We might justify our comments by claiming we’re just being honest. However, the reality might be that we’re using honesty as a weapon – we’re either completely disregarding the other person’s feelings, or worse, are trying to hurt them, consciously or unconsciously. Honesty is not always the best policy.

Compliments or empathy are obvious things we can do that cost us nothing at all. But there are other forms of emotion work that require a bit more thoughtfulness and are just as important. Here we are referring to how we react to our partner’s choices, such as their circle of friends or personal interests.

In a balanced relationship, partners share friends and participate in each other’s activities. If we’re doing our proper emotion work, we’re generally accepting of our partner’s social circle, and we balance our time between each other’s activities. For the latter, we are also willing participants in their activities. We give the impression that we’re genuinely interested even though we might not be, because we want to make our partner happy. Such reactions usually have that desired effect – our partner feels better about us and because we validate their choices, they feel better about themselves.

On the other hand, if we reject our partner’s interests or their friends, especially ones that are highly valued, that can become a source of friction. When we act bored or disinterested with a partner’s activity, reject their social circle, or belittle their interests, we take away our partner’s enjoyment. They’re likely to feel anxious when getting together with unaccepted friends or having us take part in their interests, and can come to resent us for making them feel that way. But we may also inadvertently communicate something negative as to how we feel about our partner – at least that’s how it’s likely to be interpreted, regardless if that’s our intention.

Keep in mind that supportiveness in all its forms is reciprocal — the amount you give is roughly equal to what you get back. Partners tend to mirror each other, so how one acts causes the other to act the same way. When we reject without a rational reason, that same attitude is likely to be reciprocated when it comes to our friends and interests.

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