How good are we at telling what our significant others are going through emotionally?
In the book The Little Prince, author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, "[W]e see well only with the heart," as "the essential is invisible to the eyes."
In this world view, we should rely on what our hearts, and not what our eyes, tell us to learn the truth about the world.
Can we extrapolate this to the realities of couple life? Well, a new study led by the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, has investigated whether long-term romantic partners are good at telling each other's feelings throughout the day.
Previous research has found that romantic partners do well when it comes to picking up on positive affective cues, such as happiness, from each other, and it has predicted that the same would apply to more complex negative affective cues, such as sadness. But is that true?
Lead study author Chrystyna Kouros, a psychologist, suggests that we might not be as good as we think we are at understanding when our partner is feeling down and may need us to show them some moral support. Their findings were published in the journal Family Process.
"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. They might be missing important emotional clues."
This could ultimately impact couple life, she says, noting that "failing to pick up on negative feelings 1 or 2 days is not a big deal." However, "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," explains Kouros.
'Empathic accuracy' is key
Kouros and co-author Lauren Papp worked with 55 heterosexual couples, of which 51 completed the study. These participants had initially been recruited for a larger project addressing family relationships and mental health.
At recruitment, the couples must have been living together for at least 2 years and have a child aged 10–16 who was living with them full-time.
As the authors explain, the participants were "ethnically diverse," variously identifying as African American, European American, or Hispanic. A small number of participants "selected more than one race or reported their race as 'Other'."
The researchers asked each member of each couple to fill in daily electronic diary entries detailing their own moods over an entire week. At the same time, they had to report how they thought their partner had felt throughout each day.
The findings revealed that, on the whole, the participants were not very good at understanding when their partner was feeling sad, lonely, or down — although some were more apt at picking up on emotional cues than others.
This, the study authors suggest, might be due to the fact that we tend to assume that our partners feel the same way we do most of the time. However, they do stress the importantance of staying aware of the fact that significant others aren't just copies of ourselves when it comes to emotion.
The process of attunement to a partner's feelings is called "empathic accuracy," and it is something that we need to become more adept at, the researchers say.
"With empathic accuracy," explains Kouros, "you're relying on clues from your partner to figure out their mood." Its opposite, she adds, is "assumed similarity, [...] when you just assume your partner feels the same way you do."
'Put a little more effort into paying attention'
Not all hope is lost, however, and Kouros does say that this problem is not acute enough to call for couple therapy. Instead, it can be fixed if partners simply start paying more conscious attention to each other and stop taking their own emotional state as a template.
"I suggest," she says, "couples put a little more effort into paying attention to their partner — be more mindful and in the moment when you are with your partner."
At the same time, though, we should not overpower our partners with neverending questions about their emotional state, since that could also lead to conflict. Instead, we should aim to be subtle and find a balance that works within our relationship.
"Obviously you could take it too far," Kouros admits. "If you sense that your partner's mood is a little different than usual," she advises, "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.'"
She also stresses that we shouldn't hesitate to make our own feelings known to our significant others, and that we shouldn't expect them to pick up on our emotional struggles right away.
"If there's something you want to talk about, then communicate that. It's a two-way street. It's not just your partner's responsibility," Kouros concludes.