New research finds that couples do poorly when it comes to one knowing his or her partner is sad, lonely or feeling down.
On the other hand, Southern Methodist University (SMU) researchers discovered that happiness is easily recognized by a partner.
“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 Dr. Chrystyna Kouros, lead author on the study. “They might be missing important emotional clues.”
Even when a negative mood isn’t related to the relationship, it ultimately can be harmful to a couple, said Kouros, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Psychology. A spouse is usually the primary social supporter for a person.
“Failing to pick up on negative feelings one or two days is not a big deal,” she 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.”
The finding is consistent with other research that has shown that couples tend to assume their partner feels the same way they are feeling, or thinks the same way they do, Kouros said.
But when it comes to sadness and loneliness, couples need to be on the look-out for tell-tale signs. Some people are better at this process of “empathic accuracy” — picking up on a partner’s emotions — than others.
“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 actually do feel the same, but not because you were really in tune with your partner.”
Study findings appear in the peer-reviewed journal Family Process.
Co-author on the study is relationship psychologist Dr. Lauren M. Papp at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The problem isn’t one for which couples need to seek therapy, Kouros said. Instead, she advises couples to stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling. Also, pay more attention to your partner, and communicate more.
“I suggest 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,” she said.
She cautions, however, against becoming annoying by constantly asking how the other is feeling, or if something is wrong.
“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.'”
Even so, partners shouldn’t assume their spouse is a mind-reader, expecting them to pick up on their emotions. “If there’s something you want to talk about, then communicate that. It’s a two-way street,” she said. “It’s not just your partner’s responsibility.”
The study deployed a unique methodology as participants (51 couples) were asked to complete daily diaries about their mood and the mood of their partners for seven consecutive nights. Investigators believe the study is more robust than prior investigations which relied on interviewing couples in a lab setting about feelings related to conflicts in their relationship.