Does it help to tell others about bad things that happen to us? What is this good for? There is a widespread belief that social sharing—telling others about emotional experiences—helps people feel better. However, studies do not confirm this belief. In fact, people typically feel worse after talking about bad things that happened to them, likely because this causes them to replay the bad experience in their heads. And even worse, social sharing tends to also drag down the mood of the person who listens to the disclosure. But if social sharing has emotional costs for both sharers and listeners—why is it so popular?

Why Do People Share Bad News?

This question has puzzled researchers for decades. One clue comes from research on close relationships: Studies show that talking about emotional events can create closeness between people. So maybe social sharing does not help people's mood, but rather enhances their relationships? Maybe sharing bad news enhances our sense of belonging in times of stress?

Investigating this can be tricky. People typically share meaningful experiences with their close friends or family. And they typically do so shortly after the event. Such circumstances rarely occur in laboratory experiments. Therefore, our goal was to capture social sharing as it naturally occurs in daily life. We used cell phones to repeatedly ask 100 romantic couples about their experiences as they went about their normal daily routines. We included a mix of younger and older couples (20–30 and 70–80 years of age) from different educational backgrounds. Throughout three weeks and about six times a day, both partners recorded their current mood and how close they felt to their partner at the moment. Each time, they also documented if they had experienced any hassles and if they had told their partner about the experience. We were specifically interested in situations where people had indeed just experienced a hassle. For these occasions, we compared how people felt if they had told their partner about this experience, compared to hassles they had kept to themselves.

Not surprisingly, people felt worse after hassles than at times without such negative events. But we wanted to know: Did social sharing help people to recover emotionally from the hassle? Not necessarily. Some people indeed felt better after sharing, while others did not. Some people also felt worse after listening to their partner's sharing, while others did not. In other words, social sharing left the couples with a mixed bag of emotional gains and losses.

However, there were clear boosts in relationship closeness after sharing. These boosts were experienced by men and women alike, and by both sharers and listeners. We also looked at how close people felt before they decided to share. Maybe the partners just shared more in moments when they were already feeling close to each other? This was not the case. Closeness was higher after sharing, no matter how close people had felt shortly before.

Social Sharing Predicts the Future of a Relationship

But do these boosts in relationship closeness last? Are they fleeting experiences or do they build up to enhance closeness in the long run? Theory has suggested that social sharing creates virtuous cycles of mutual trust and even more sharing, which build up relationship closeness over time.

To investigate this possibility, we asked the couples about their relationships 2.5 years later. Those with partners who had often shared their hassles perceived greater relationship closeness 2.5 years later. On the other hand, people with partners who seldomly engaged in sharing lost some of their closeness over time. Together, our results suggest that social sharing can help to strengthen relationships—in the moment, and over time. This could explain why social sharing is so popular, despite the emotional costs it entails. It may not necessarily help to improve your mood, but it can help create ties that bind.

For Further Reading

Rauers, A., & Riediger, M. (2022). Ease of mind or ties that bind? Costs and benefits of disclosing daily hassles in partnerships. Personality and Social Psychological Science. 10.1177/19485506221112252

Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck, D. F. Hay, S. E. Hobfoll, W. Ickes, & B. M. Montgomery (Eds.), Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research and interventions (pp. 367–389). John Wiley & Sons.

Rimé, B., Bouchat, P., Paquot, L., & Giglio, L. (2020). Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social outcomes of the social sharing of emotion. Current Opinion in Psychology, 31, 127–134. 10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.08.024

Antje Rauers is a senior scientist at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany. She studies social relationships and socio-emotional competencies across the lifespan.

Michaela Riediger is chair of the Department of Developmental Psychology at the University of Jena and director of the Center for Lifespan Developmental Science. She studies socio-emotional development from childhood to very old age, and its role for other domains of functioning, such as health.