Can Sharing Bad News Improve Close Relationships?

Men and women in close relationships hope to experience joyful and optimistic times together. They are happy to share everything good that happens in their lives. The people close to them are happy to hear the good news. It is widely held that sharing in a relationship—telling another about one’s emotional experiences—makes people feel better.

What about bad news? Does it make sense to share with others in their close relationships something bad that happened to us? Some may want to avoid spoiling their good moods.

Does it help people themselves when they share with others their bad news? People often feel worse after discussing negative events that have occurred to them. They perhaps replay the negative experience in their minds.

Something even worse may occur. Social sharing tends to lower the mood of the person listening to the disclosure. But why is social sharing so popular if it has emotional costs for both sharers and listeners? In their recent article at Character & Context Blog, German scholars Antje Rauers and Michaela Riediger from the University of Jena discuss this controversy.

People Tend to Share their Bad News with those Close to Them

For decades, scientists have tried to answer this question. Studies of intimate relationships provide a possible clue. Research shows that sharing stories about feelings can bring people closer together. As a result, perhaps the positive effects of sharing are not related to mood but rather to the quality of the relationships between people. Perhaps in times of crisis, the act of telling one another bad news strengthens our bonds with one another.

People usually share meaningful experiences with close friends or family members. To explore how and why they do this, Antje Rauers and Michaela Riediger designed a study with the goal of capturing social sharing as it happens in real life. Researchers asked 100 romantic couples over cell phones about their experiences as they went about their daily lives. During a period of three weeks, both partners recorded their current mood and how close they felt to their partner six times per day. Every time, partners also documented if they had any problems and whether they had shared with their partner their experience. Researchers were particularly interested in situations in which people had indeed just experienced a hassle. Then, they compared how people felt if they told their partner about these incidents with how they felt if they kept that bad experience to themselves.

What Did Researchers Find in Their Study?

Unsurprisingly, people felt worse following adversity than they did in the absence of such events.

Yet, researchers wanted to know if social sharing helped people emotionally recover from the hassles. Perhaps not necessarily. Some did not feel better after sharing, while some did. Some men and women also felt worse after hearing their partner’s story, whereas others did not. In other words, social sharing resulted in both emotional gains and losses for the couples.

Their sharing, however, significantly increased their relationship’s closeness. Both men and women experienced these benefits. And both the sharers and the receivers experienced these benefits. Researchers also examined how people in close relationships felt prior to sharing.

The main conclusion was that sharing did make people feel closer, no matter how close they had felt before. 

Social Sharing Affects Future Closeness in Relationships

Here is another question of interest. Are they fleeting experiences, or do they accumulate over time to increase closeness? How long do these increases in relationship closeness last?

According to the theory, social sharing generates virtuous cycles of mutual trust and even more sharing, which increase relationship closeness over time. Researchers asked the couples about their relationships 2.5 years later.

Results showed that those who had frequently shared their problems with their partners reported greater relationship closeness 2.5 years later. People who rarely shared with their partners, on the other hand, lost some of their closeness over time. Thus, the author’s findings suggest that social sharing can help to strengthen relationships both in the present and in the future. This psychological discovery explains why, despite the emotional costs, social sharing is so popular. Sharing bad news may not necessarily help to improve our mood, but it can aid in the formation of our close bonds.