New research suggests that the ability to maintain a strong sense of self is linked to improved romantic relationships. The study, published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, found that two aspects of differentiation of self — which focus on emotional regulation — were associated with increased relationship satisfaction and sexual desire.
“Differentiation of self, an ability to balance autonomy and connection in a relationship, is a particular research interest of mine because of the many positive outcomes that both individuals and couples can achieve by working to develop this. It’s associated with increased sexual desire and stronger relationships, a deeper capacity for intimacy, better emotion regulation, improved health, reduced anxiety, and a number of other positive outcomes,” explained study author Amber Price, a master’s student at Brigham Young University
“Recognizing all of these positives, we wanted to consider if there are particular aspects of differentiation that differ for men and women in order to be able address challenges for each. We specifically looked at emotional reactivity and emotional cutoff because those are two areas that have previously been associated with gender differences and are also closely linked with relationship outcomes.”
Emotional cutoff refers to the tendency to disconnect from highly emotional situations, while emotional reactivity refers to one’s level of sensitivity to stressful events.
For their study, the researchers examined data collected by the Flourishing Families Project, a longitudinal study conducted from 2007 to 2011 involving families with a child between ages 10 and 14.
Their analysis of 334 married heterosexual couples found that women tended to have greater emotional reactivity, while men tended to have greater emotional cutoff. In other words, women were more likely than men to agree with statements such as “people have remarked that I am overly emotional.” Men, on the other hand, were more likely than women to agree with statements such as “I am often uncomfortable when people get too close to me.”
The researchers also found that emotional cutoff and emotional reactivity predicted relationship satisfaction and sexual desire one year later.
“For women who are emotionally reactive, this might look like being hypersensitive or over-reacting to a difficult situation and this was associated with decreased relationship satisfaction for her. For men who are emotionally cutoff, this might look like using the silent treatment, becoming defensive, or avoiding emotional connection when times get hard. This was associated with decreased relationship and sexual satisfaction for him as well as a decrease in relationship satisfaction for his partner,” Price explained.
“Though certainly not all men engage in emotional cutoff and not all women are emotionally reactive, it is important to work towards greater emotional regulation as a way to help improve relationships.”
Future research could also address how other aspects of differentiation of self impact romantic relationships.
“Emotional reactivity and emotional cutoff are only two parts of differentiation,” Price said. “Other areas that could be examined further would be emotional fusion and willingness to take an ‘I’ position (or owning your own thoughts, feelings, and desires) to consider if there are significant differences between men and women and to further consider how these aspects of differentiation are associated with things like relationship and sexual satisfaction over time.”
The study, “How Gender Differences in Emotional Cutoff and Reactivity Influence Couple’s Sexual and Relational Outcomes“, was authored by Amber A. Price, Chelom E. Leavitt, and David B. Allsop.