Soft emotion is a term that describes types of negative emotion that are associated with having pro-social goals and with the expression of interpersonal vulnerability. These emotions include feeling sad, hurt, concerned, and disappointed, and soft emotion plays a key role in theories regarding conflict in couples and other close interpersonal relationships.
People often experience types of soft emotion, such as feeling sad or hurt, during interpersonal conflicts. Because soft emotion is associated with pro-social goals and expressions of vulnerability, it is presumed to be a key variable that can influence the process of conflict resolution. Soft emotion can be contrasted with hard emotion, which includes types of negative emotion involving feelings of anger, and hard emotion is associated with assertiveness and bids for power and dominance. On the one hand, both soft and hard emotions are similar in that they are types of negative emotion associated with the experience of interpersonal conflicts. On the other hand, these types of emotion may have different functions. Whereas hard emotion may escalate conflict interactions, soft emotion has the potential to facilitate empathy and intimacy within a relationship. In general, research finds that soft emotion is sometimes, but not always, associated with the development and maintenance of satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Soft Emotion in Couple Therapy
The concept of soft emotion is largely derived from two different empirically supported approaches to couple therapy. First, in Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy (Jacobson and Christensen 1996), it is assumed that the expression of soft emotion in a relationship has the potential to create a safe environment for intimate communication and to facilitate empathy and acceptance between partners. Second, in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (Johnson and Greenberg 1988), it is assumed that distressed partners often fail to recognize their soft emotion and that it is valuable for them to identify and express this type of emotion because it is adaptive and salient to their attachment needs. Thus, in both approaches, soft emotion is viewed as beneficial, and partners are often encouraged to express soft emotion. Research studies regarding both approaches to therapy have found that couples are most likely to improve when there is a shift from expressing hard emotion to expressing soft emotion during therapy sessions (e.g., Johnson and Greenberg 1988).
A Pro-social Negative Emotion
The concept of soft emotion is also based on theoretical models suggesting that emotions are products of evolution that enable humans to respond to basic adaptive challenges in living and that some types of emotion have pro-social functions. Buck’s (1999) developmental-interactionist theory distinguishes between two important types of emotion. Selfish emotion is focused on self-preservation, conflict, competition, and fighting, and in contrast, pro-social emotion is focused on preserving interpersonal relationships, attachment, and cooperation. Presumably, soft emotion is a type of pro-social emotion. For example, sadness is a type of soft emotion, and research finds that the expression of sadness often indicates a need for social support, that sadness is most likely to be expressed in the context of a close relationship, and that it can elicit helping and comforting behaviors from others (Clark et al. 1996). Feeling hurt is another type of soft emotion, and it is experienced in the context of an interpersonal relationship when a person wants a partner to value the relationship but perceives that the partner has failed to value the relationship at the desired level (Leary and Springer 2001). Thus, this feeling reflects an underlying core concern for maintaining attachment bonds within an interpersonal relationship.
The pro-social nature of soft emotion can also be seen in results from studies investigating the experience of soft emotion during interpersonal conflicts between married, cohabiting, and dating partners. These studies find that soft emotion is associated with endorsing pro-social goals within a relationship (Sanford 2007a) and with experiencing high relationship satisfaction and reporting low levels of attachment avoidance (Sanford and Rowatt 2004). Short-term longitudinal studies have found that, during interpersonal conflicts, increased feelings of soft emotion are associated with increased perceptions of being neglected in dating relationships (Sanford and Grace 2011) and with increased appraisals that conflicts are important to resolve in marriage relationships (Sanford 2007b). A key theme across these studies is that soft emotion appears to be associated with having goals and desires that pertain to developing and preserving satisfying interpersonal relationships.
When soft emotion is expressed and perceived by a partner in a close interpersonal relationship, it may communicate an important message to that partner. Although expressions of soft emotion are not as readily recognized as expressions of hard emotion, research with married couples finds that partners do recognize each other’s soft emotion when it is overtly expressed and they sometimes have an accurate awareness of each other’s soft emotion even when it is not expressed clearly (Sanford 2012). The expression of soft emotion may convey a message of vulnerability and a bid for companionship (Sanford 2007a). This is important because theoretical models of intimacy suggest that self-disclosure of vulnerability is essential for developing intimacy in a relationship. In addition, when partners perceive each other’s soft emotion, they increase their levels of trust, and they view each other as being committed partners (Sanford and Grace 2011). Presumably, this is because expressions of soft emotion and vulnerability signal one’s own desire and willingness to invest in a relationship.
Couple Conflict Communication
Because soft emotion is a pro-social emotion that communicates vulnerability, it is expected to facilitate the process of resolution when couples experience relationship conflicts. On the one hand, some studies find that the personal experience of soft emotion is actually associated with a minimal, albeit significant, increase in adversarial communication behavior, such as expressing criticism and hostility and being defensive. On the other hand, soft emotion tends to elicit significantly less adversarial behavior than does hard emotion (Sanford 2007b). Moreover, regardless of the effect on adversarial behavior, studies find that soft emotion is associated with increased collaborative communication behavior, such as politely expressing one’s own desires and listening to a partner (Sanford 2007a, b). In addition, when partners perceive soft emotion in each other, they tend to use less adversarial and more collaborative behavior (Sanford 2007b).
Mixed Effects of Soft Emotion
Although soft emotion has the potential to facilitate conflict resolution and intimacy, research regarding the effects of soft emotion sometimes produces mixed results. One reason for this is that soft emotion can simultaneously have different and seemingly opposing effects. For example, Sanford and Grace (2011) found that, when people perceive soft emotion in their partners, they tend to experience increased perceptions of partner commitment and this in turn leads to reductions in their own feelings of soft emotion. At the same time, people tend to experience an emotion contagion effect whereby a partner’s soft emotion directly predicts increases in one’s own soft emotion. Also, although a partner’s soft emotion tends to increase perceptions of partner commitment, it also tends to increase concerns that a partner will be threatening, critical, or judgmental. In research where participants are specifically instructed to recall an experience of being hurt, they often recall experiences involving infidelity, betrayal, or rejection, and in these cases, soft emotion may motivate people to dissolve one relationship and seek comfort from an alternate relationship. In sum, soft emotion appears to have the potential to facilitate both positive and negative relationship outcomes.
The quality of an interpersonal relationship may partly determine whether the effects of soft emotion are positive or negative. For example, when people perceive high levels of relationship closeness, they tend to increase acquiescent responses and decrease levels of negativity after feeling hurt. In contrast, when people believe they are negatively evaluated by their partners, they tend to increase negative communication after feeling hurt, and they are likely to distance themselves from partners that are perceived as being frequently and intentionally hurtful. A study investigating predictors of conflict resolution in married and cohabiting couples found that, when people were in satisfying relationships, the effect of soft emotion was mostly benign but, when they were in discordant relationships, soft emotion was actually detrimental and associated with conflict escalation.
Studies that assess people on multiple occasions find high within-person variability in soft emotion, meaning that people substantially change their emotions across different times and contexts, yet these studies also find a small but significant degree of within-person stability, with about 25% of the variance in soft emotion reflecting individual differences between people. Research also finds that the effects of soft emotion are moderated by individual differences in the ways that people habitually express emotions in their relationships. For example, if there are chronically high levels of hard emotion in a relationship, partners tend to refrain from expressing soft emotion, and they also tend to fail to recognize it in each other when it is expressed (Sanford 2012). In addition, research finds that, although people tend to use positive communication during single instances where a partner expresses soft emotion, they tend to use negative communication if those partners chronically express soft emotion across multiple episodes of conflict (Sanford 2007b). Thus, the meaning of soft emotion in a single instance can depend on individual differences and on the types of emotion that are typically expressed by partners in a relationship.
Researchers and clinicians can assess levels of soft emotion during episodes of couple conflict using a brief, self-report measure called the Couples Emotion Rating Form (Sanford 2007a). This instrument includes a four-item soft emotion scale measuring feelings of sadness, hurt, concern, and disappointment. It also includes a scale measuring hard emotions (such as feeling annoyed and angry) and a scale measuring flat emotions (such as feeling apathetic and disengaged). Factor analytic studies find that these three scales form three distinct factors (Sanford 2007a). In addition, research finds that ratings on the soft emotion scale correspond to observer ratings of expressed soft emotion (Sanford 2007a, 2012) and that changes in ratings of soft emotion predict corresponding changes in communication behavior and cognition (Sanford 2007b; Sanford and Grace 2011). Thus, this instrument provides a valid method for assessing soft emotion during couple’s conflicts.
Soft emotion is a complex type of negative emotion that people often experience during interpersonal conflicts. Its distinctive features include an association with pro-social goals and expressions of vulnerability. When people experience conflicts in interpersonal relationships, the expression of soft emotion is sometimes associated with positive behaviors such as increases in collaborative communication and empathy. However, it appears that the effects of soft emotion in a relationship may depend on relationship quality. It is most likely to improve relationship functioning when expressed in the context of a satisfying relationship.
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