Imagine the opening scene from the Oscar-winning film, Everything Everywhere All at Once:

Before an upcoming tax audit, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) finds herself having to prepare a New Year's party with impending family drama, feeling anxious and overwhelmed. While her day gets progressively more absurd by the minute, her partner (or "my silly husband," as she calls him), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), makes a series of attempts to help her manage her emotions: he takes on the housework, tries to console her about the situation, and, later on, requests an extension for her with a particularly difficult IRS worker.

How did Waymond choose these strategies to try to help Evelyn cope with her emotions? Which were most effective, from each of their viewpoints? And did they help Evelyn feel better about her day and her relationship?

Our Research

People have various ways to regulate (or manage) their emotions, such as going for a run when they're upset or reframing a stressful situation as a learning opportunity. Most research investigates what people do to manage their own emotions. However, people sometimes seek the help of another person, such as a close friend or romantic partner, to manage their emotions. Naturally, they also try to do the same for their partners during the ups and downs of their daily lives.

Our research team at the University of Rochester explored how partners try to manage each others' emotions in a daily diary study of 197 cohabiting romantic couples. We asked couples to reflect on their emotions for 14 consecutive nights before bedtime. Every night, both partners individually recorded any negative and positive emotions they experienced during the day, and what their partner did to help regulate these emotions. They also reported negative and positive emotions they noticed their partner experiencing, and what they did (if anything) to help their partner regulate these emotions. In other words, our study design examined both partners' experiences as the regulator attempting to influence their partner's emotion and as the target person experiencing the emotion each night.

Regulating the Emotions of a Romantic Partner

How can people help a romantic partner manage their emotions? According to psychologist James Gross, emotions can be regulated at any of three stages: attention to the situations that kindle emotions, appraisal of those emotions, and expression of those emotions. At each stage, people can help partners regulate their emotions.

For example, people can directly try to help their partner change the situation that is causing the emotion. This is called situation modification, a strategy that our research found to be the most commonly used in managing a partner's negative emotions. Waymond alleviating Evelyn's anxiety by bargaining for a tax audit extension would be an example of this strategy.

Other common strategies included reappraisal (suggesting other ways of thinking about the problem) and distraction (helping partners focus on something else). Suppression (helping a partner lessen their outward expression of emotion) was the least common strategy reported by our participants. This was surprising to us, given the popularity of suppression as a topic of research.

Emotion regulation also applies to positive emotions: when people are happy, their partner could help them savor by opening a bottle of champagne to increase or prolong the happiness, or they might dampen by raising unforeseen downsides in a way that lessens the happiness. We found savoring to be very common while dampening was rare.

Which Strategies Work Best for Regulating a Partner's Emotions?

It depends on who you ask! Regulators saw all strategies except suppression and dampening as effective in improving their partner's emotions. Effective emotion management, in turn, helped regulators feel satisfied with their relationships. For example, Waymond might successfully alter Evelyn's negative emotions by modifying her situation or helping her reframe the situation, and he'd feel better about their relationship afterwards. The same goes for Evelyn's positive emotions: Waymond would feel effective and satisfied by helping her savor her happiness.

When we asked targets, their answers mostly confirmed regulators' perceptions: Evelyn largely agreed with Waymond about which strategies were effective. However, there was one striking difference: whereas regulators did not see suppression as effective, targets did, a result that runs contrary to much-published research showing that suppression is an ineffective means of coping with one's own emotions. We suspect suppression may be more helpful in partner emotion regulation because it denotes compassion. Interestingly, in the movie, Waymond uses suppression in a very tender and caring manner ("shhh shhh shhh, calm down") before switching to another strategy, reappraisal, to prevent Evelyn from spiraling down. Suppression might not be as effective if carried out in a harsher or more detached way.

Surprisingly, for targets effective emotion regulation was unrelated to relationship satisfaction on that day. That is, while Evelyn may have appreciated Waymond helping her deal with her emotions on a given day, she did not feel higher relationship satisfaction at the end of the day. Successful regulation, while alleviating negative emotions, still does not eliminate the event that created the negative emotions in the first place, which may cloud retrospective perceptions of the day.

Although we studied people in one particular type of relationship—cohabiting romantic couples—because they are the most likely pairing to try to regulate each other's emotions, we think similar results are likely with other types of relationships (family, close friends, etc.), but that conclusion awaits future research.

The Takeaway Message

It's easy to get lost in the ups and downs of your own emotions. The next time you are trying to make sense of an emotional experience, consider bringing a close friend or partner into the mix to help you manage your emotions.

What about when you notice a partner experiencing emotion? There are multiple reasons why people might try to help their partners manage their emotions—sometimes because of genuinely empathic motives but at other times, one partner's anxiety or anger might be making the other partner feel uncomfortable themselves. Another consideration is that partners may not always want help managing their emotions. So the next time you see your partner experiencing an emotion, it might be good to start with a simple question: "How can I help?"

For Further Reading

Ruan, Y., Le, J. D. V., & Reis, H. T. (2023). How can I help?: Specific strategies used in interpersonal emotion regulation in a relationship context. Emotion. Advance online publication.

Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26(1), 1-26.

Zaki, J., & Williams, W. C. (2013). Interpersonal emotion regulation. Emotion, 13(5), 803-810.

Yan Ruan received her Ph.D. in the Department of Psychology at the University of Rochester. Her research examines emotion regulation processes in the context of intimate relationships.

Jenny D.V. Le is a Social Psychology graduate student at the University of Rochester. Her research broadly examines how empathy and emotion regulation processes help strengthen our relationships with close others.

Harry T. Reis is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Rochester. His research examines interpersonal processes that affect the course and conduct of close relationships.