Emotion is My Middle Name

Posted on Oct 18, 2017

By Justin Dube

When I was a little punk-rock-kid I loved this song about emotion. Then, during the third year of my undergrad, I took a course on emotion, and… I hated it. At the time, emotion seemed so nebulous, while other things (like vintage road bikes and Rock ‘n Roll and Simpsons re-runs) seemed so tangible! Now, years later, I find myself immersed in emotion regulation research. This is a recurrent theme in my life – the things that I avoid or dislike tend to be the things I spend the most time with. So, for the record, I’m not really into having lots of chocolate, or money (fingers crossed emoji).

If my early experiences with the study of emotion left me less than enthused, then how did I become interested in understanding the link between emotion regulation and sexual wellbeing? Well, as is often the case, personal experiences spurred my curiosity for my chosen field of study. After sustaining a concussion (which often provokes emotional changes [1]), I noticed that my ability to regulate my emotions was kind of wonky, and that this was affecting the quality of my relationships. I wondered: Is this unique to me? Must I forgo Simpsons re-run bliss for a career in research? What is emotion regulation, anyway?

Emotion regulation refers to the set of processes that people use to manage an emotional response, which includes physiology, behaviour, and experience[2, 3]. Differences in emotion regulation ability predict how quickly an emotional state is resolved [2]. So, the way you regulate your emotions is linked to how and when your heart rate, crying, and sadness return to typical levels after discovering that someone ate your last piece of chocolate. Given that conversations about sex tend to be more fraught than conversations about chocolate (maybe? maybe not…), emotion regulation could be especially relevant to the maintenance of couples’ sexual wellbeing. Indeed, research on emotion regulation in the context of intimate relationships suggests this is the case:

  • In a 13-year longitudinal study of married couples, more successful regulation of negative emotions predicted greater marital satisfaction over time [4].
  • Greater use of emotional reappraisal, the strategy of positively reframing an emotionally-provoking event, was found to protect against typical declines in marital quality [5].
  • Greater use of emotional suppression, the strategy of inhibiting an emotional response, predicted lower relationship quality among newlyweds [6].
  • Difficulty regulating negative emotions has been linked to lower sexual satisfaction in clinical populations, such as those with a history of sexual abuse [7, 8].

Marital quality and sexual satisfaction are associated with sexual wellbeing [9]. Thus, better regulation of negative emotion and more positive reframing of emotional events may help preserve the sexual wellbeing of couples, although this has yet to be systematically studied. Unknowns in the field include whether emotion regulation is linked to sexual desire, whether emotion regulation predicts sexual satisfaction over time, whether changing typical strategies of emotion regulation will improve sexual wellbeing in couples, and whether conversations about sex really are more fraught than conversations about who ate the last piece of your chocolate.

Sources:

[1] Lovell, M.R., et al., Recovery from mild concussion in high school athletes. Journal of neurosurgery, 2003. 98(2): p. 296-301.

[2] Gross, J.J., Emotion and emotion regulation. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 1999. 2: p. 525-552.

[3] Koole, S., The psychology of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Cognition & Emotion, 2009. 23(1): p. 4-41.

[4] Bloch, L., C.M. Haase, and R.W. Levenson, Emotion Regulation Predicts Marital Satisfaction: More Than a Wives’ Tale. Emotion, 2014. 14(1): p. 130-144.

[5] Finkel, E.J., et al., A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time. Psychological Science, 2013. 24(8): p. 1595-1601.

[6] Velotti, P., et al., X Emotional suppression in early marriage: Actor, partner, and similarity effects on marital quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2016. 33(3): p. 277-302.

[7] Rellini, A.H., et al., Childhood Maltreatment and Difficulties in Emotion Regulation: Associations with Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction among Young Adult Women. Journal of Sex Research, 2012. 49(5): p. 434-442.

[8] Rellini, A.H., A.A. Vujanovic, and M.J. Zvolensky, Emotional Dysregulation: Concurrent Relation to Sexual Problems Among Trauma-Exposed Adult Cigarette Smokers. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2010. 36(2): p. 137-153.

[9] Sanchez-Fuentes, M.D., P. Santos-Iglesias, and J.C. Sierra, A systematic review of sexual satisfaction. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 2014. 14(1): p. 67-75.