Married couples usually are pretty good at recognizing each other’s emotional state during conflicts. However, researchers have found that one significant emotion – sadness – often may be missed when a partner is angry.
Moreover, the anger expressed during a quarrel may represent more than just the current topic of disagreement.
Baylor University researchers say the presentation of anger during a marital argument may reflect the overall climate of your marriage rather than what your partner is feeling at the moment of the dispute.
What’s more, “if your partner is angry, you are likely to miss the fact that your partner might also be feeling sad,” said Keith Sanford, Ph.D. His study — “The Communication of Emotion During Conflict in Married Couples” — is published online in the Journal of Family Psychology.
“I found that people were most likely to express anger, not in the moments where they felt most angry, but rather in the situations where there was an overall climate of anger in their relationship – situations where both partners had been feeling angry over a period of time,” he said.
“This means that if a couple falls into a climate of anger, they tend to continue expressing anger regardless of how they actually feel . . . It becomes a kind of trap they cannot escape.”
Common spats that might fester deal with in-laws, chores, money, affection and time spent on the computer.
Sanford found that when people express anger, they often also feel sad. But while a partner will easily and immediately recognize expressions of anger, the spouse often will fail to notice the sadness.
“When it comes to perceiving emotion in a partner, anger trumps sadness,” he said.
Sometimes the acknowledgment and understanding of genuine sadness during a conflict can help the partners grow closer. The awareness of sorrow can potentially help couples to break out of a climate of anger.
“A take-home message is that there may be times where it is beneficial to express feelings of sadness during conflict, but sad feelings are most likely to be noticed if you are not simultaneously expressing anger,” Sanford said.
The findings were based on self-reporting by 83 married couples as well as observation and rating of their behavior by research assistants, who were given permission by the couples to videotape them through a one-way mirror.
Couples were asked to choose two areas of conflict and talk to each other about them — one chosen by the wife, the other by the husband. They also were asked to rate their emotions and those of their partners before and after each discussion.
One would expect that partners’ emotional intelligence on how their partner feels would be high because of the “insider knowledge” making it easier for them to read each other, Sanford said.
But the only time in which couples made significant use of insider knowledge to distinguish emotions was in interpreting soft emotions — such as hurt or disappointment — in conflicts about specific events, the study showed.
While women expressed soft emotions more, they were no better at perceiving hard emotions (such as anger) than soft ones, Sanford said.
Source: Baylor University