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Reading Partner’s Emotions Can Be Double-Edged Sword

When a person can read their partner’s emotions it can strengthen their relationship, according to new research.

But the new study also found that when anger or contempt come into play, the quality of the relationship can plummet.

In the new study, psychologists at the University of Rochester in the United States and the University of Toronto in Canada tried to figure out under what circumstances the ability to read another person’s emotions — what psychologists call “empathic accuracy” — is beneficial for a relationship and when it could be harmful.

The study examined whether the accurate perception of a romantic partner’s emotions has any bearing on the quality of a relationship, the researchers explained, as well as a person’s motivation to change when a romantic partner asks for a change in behavior or attitude.

While previous research on empathic accuracy had yielded mixed findings, the new study shows that couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions, such as embarrassment, have better relationships than those who accurately perceive dominance emotions, such as anger or contempt, according to the researchers. The perception may be on the part of the person requesting the change, or the person receiving the request, they explained.

According to lead author Dr. Bonnie Le, an assistant professor in the University of Rochester’s Department of Psychology, the researchers zeroed in on how accurately deciphering different types of emotions affects relationship quality.

“If you accurately perceive threatening displays from your partner, it can shake your confidence in a relationship,” said Le, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Key findings from the study include:

  • couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions — either as the person requesting the change or the person receiving the request — have better relationships;
  • couples where either partner feels negative emotions, regardless of whether those emotions are accurately perceived by the partner, have poorer relationships;
  • accuracy in reading another person’s emotions does not increase the motivation to heed a partner’s request for change.

But why is the ability to change important for a relationship?

Even in the best relationships, partners invariably experience conflict, the researchers note. One way to tackle conflict is to ask a partner to change by, for example, spending less money, losing weight, making changes to a couple’s sex life, or resetting life goals. Yet, requesting such personal — and sometimes threatening — change can elicit negative emotions and put a strain on a relationship, the researchers said. That’s why figuring out how best to navigate emotionally charged situations is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship, they add.

“If you are appeasing with your partner — or feel embarrassed or bashful — and your partner accurately picks up on this, it can signal to your partner that you care about their feelings and recognize a change request might be hurtful,” Le said. “Or if your partner is angry or contemptuous — what we call dominance emotions — that signals very different, negative information that may hurt a partner if they accurately perceive it.”

The researchers discovered that the type of negative emotion detected matters. If you read in your partner’s expression softer emotions, such as sadness, shame, or embarrassment, you generally enjoy a strong relationship, they said. One possible reason is that these so-called “appeasement emotions” are read as signals of concern for the partner’s feelings.

In contrast, and contrary to the researchers’ original hypothesis, simply feeling anger or contempt — emotions that signal blame and defensiveness — rather than accurately reading those emotions in your partner, may be socially destructive for a relationship. The team found that if even just one partner felt angry, or displayed contempt, the quality of the relationship tanked, regardless of whether the other partner’s ability to read emotions was spot on, or completely missed the mark.

According to study coauthor Dr. Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the researchers don’t exactly know why anger functions in this way.

“We think reading emotions allows partners to coordinate what they do and say to each other, and perhaps that is helpful when appeasement emotions are read, but not when anger emotions are read,” she said. “Anger seems to overpower any effect of reading emotions, which is consistent with lots of research findings on how anger harms relationships.”

For the study, the researchers asked 111 couples who had been dating for an average of three years to discuss in a lab setting an aspect that they wanted their partner to change, such as particular behaviors, personal characteristics, or how they controlled their temper.

The researchers then switched the roles of those making the request and those who were asked to change.

Afterward, the participants rated their own emotions and perceptions of their partner’s emotions, their relationship quality, and their motivation to heed those change requests.

“Expressing and perceiving emotions is, of course, important for making connections and deriving satisfaction in a relationship,” Le said. “But in order to really propel your partner to change, you may need to use more direct communication about exactly what kind of change you are hoping for.”

Research has shown that direct communication, whether positive or negative, is more likely to lead to change in the long run. That said, the emotional tone you take when you ask your partner for a change is important, Le noted.

“It’s not bad to feel a little bashful or embarrassed when raising these issues because it signals to the partner that you care and it’s valuable for your partner to see that,” she said. “You acknowledge that what you raise may hurt their feelings. It shows that you are invested, that you are committed to having this conversation, and committed to not hurting them. And the extent to which this is noted by your partner may foster a more positive relationship.”

Source: University of Rochester 

Reading Partner’s Emotions Can Be Double-Edged Sword

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Reading Partner’s Emotions Can Be Double-Edged Sword. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/05/23/reading-partners-emotions-can-be-double-edged-sword/156760.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 May 2020 (Originally: 23 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 May 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.