New research says couples do poorly at knowing when their partner is sad or feeling down
Reading your partner’s feelings and good communication is important to the health of your relationship—this should come as no surprise. A recent study found that couples can read each other’s feelings well when the emotion occurring is happiness, but not as well when their partner has darker emotions.
This study came from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and involved 51 couples. The couples wrote daily diary entries about their mood and the mood of their partners for seven consecutive nights—this is different than most approaches to couples research, which rely on interviewing couples in a lab about their feelings around conflicts in the relationship.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Family Process, in an article titled “Couples’ Perceptions of Each Other’s Daily Affect: Empathic Accuracy, Assumed Similarity, and Indirect Accuracy.”
“We found that when it comes to the normal ebb and flow of daily emotions, couples aren’t picking up on those occasional changes in ‘soft negative’ emotions like sadness or feeling down,” said family psychologist Chrystyna Kouros, the lead author. “They might be missing important emotional clues.”
Couples need to tether to each other emotionally
Spouses are usually each other’s primary social supporter—the person they rely on to regulate emotions. So even if a negative mood isn’t related to the relationship, it ultimately can be harmful to a couple.
“Failing to pick up on negative feelings one or two days is not a big deal,” Kouros said. “But if this accumulates, then down the road it could become a problem for the relationship. It’s these missed opportunities to be offering support or talking it out that can compound over time to negatively affect a relationship.”
These results are consistent with other research that has found how couples tend to assume their partner feels the same way they feel or thinks the same way they do. Assuming what your partner feels is a dangerous trap to fall into because if you never notice how your partner is feeling, they’re going to feel taken for granted—that’s the compounding over time that harms the relationship.
How you can become more perceptive to your partner’s moods
To stay alert to your partner’s sad and lonely moods, look for signs. Staying attuned to your partner’s moods is called “empathic accuracy”—picking up on your partner’s emotions—and you can get better at with time. “With empathic accuracy, you’re relying on clues from your partner to figure out their mood,” Kouros said. “Assumed similarity, on the other hand, is when you just assume your partner feels the same way you do. Sometimes you might be right because the two of you do feel the same, but not because you were really in tune with your partner.”
You may not need couples therapy to fix this issue. Just stop assuming you know what your partner is thinking or feeling, even if you’ve been together for some time. Pay more attention to your partner, communicate more—in other words, step out of your thought stream and join them in the present moment.
But you don’t have to overcompensate either. Continually asking how your spouse is feeling, or if something is wrong with them, quickly gets old.
“Obviously you could take it too far,” Kouros said. “If you sense that your partner’s mood is a little different than usual, you can just simply ask how their day was, or maybe you don’t even bring it up, you just say instead ‘Let me pick up dinner tonight’ or ‘I’ll put the kids to bed tonight.'”
And be upfront with your needs too—your partner is not clairvoyant. Effective couple communication has to run both ways for a relationship to endure.
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Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.