New research shows how couples can learn to better read each other.
We’re more or less conditioned to want to read the minds of the people to whom we’re closest. After all, part of being in an intimate relationship involves empathic understandingof your partner. When your partner is unhappy, you’re supposed to be able to detect this, and what's more, to do something to alleviate the pain. According to Bar-Ilan University’s Haran Sened and colleagues (2017), there are three distinct pathways involved in assessing the mental state of the people to whom we’re close. Which one you use depends on whether you and your partner are involved in some type of conflict. Genderalso plays a role, they suggest, as men and women are socialized to use empathic understanding in close relationships differently.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post's "Post 50" blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Sened et al. began their exploration of empathy in relationships with the assumption that there are actually two distinct pathways to empathic understanding. The first is automatic and unconscious. You feel a certain way and assume that your partner does as well. Perhaps you’ve come home in a great mood, because things just went your way at work. You’re singing the song you just heard through your headphones, and the weather is beautiful. Obviously, your partner is in a great mood too. You’ll therefore stick to this conclusion until you’re proven otherwise.The second route to empathy requires that you disconnect from your own mental state and try to figure out how your partner is actually feeling. You notice the little frown lines that appear when your partner is unhappy and remember that your partner was going to have met with someone that day who’s a constant source of irritation, and therefore, your partner might not share your cheer. Your empathy in this situation requires that you really tune in to your partner’s mental state based on what you know about your partner, regardless of how you may feel at the moment.
In the Bar-Ilan et al. study (2017), the unconscious pathway to empathy is called “Bias” because it reflects how your own mood influences the way you perceive your partner’s. The “Truth” pathway is that second, more controlled one in which you try to accurately detect how your partner is feeling based on what you know about your partner and your partner's life. The researchers further proposed that your motivation to detect accurately how your partner is feeling is heightened during conflict situations.
Gender throws a wrinkle into this equation. As Sened and colleagues point out, men are more avoidant of conflict, and when it occurs, they try to resolve it more quickly than women do by going into problem-solving mode. Because they want to avoid conflict, men might therefore be more motivated to use the Bias pathway just to keep from recognizing that conflict exists. On the other hand, because they also want to resolve conflict quickly when it's inevitable, they might be more motivated to use the Truth pathway to understand accurately how their partner is feeling.
Conflict further confounds the pathways to empathy. During conflict, the “truth force” leads people to disconnect from their own feelings to judge accurately how their partner is doing. The “bias force” leads people, conversely, to impose their own negative emotions during the conflict onto their partner. If it just so happens that both partners are feeling angry or sad, then truth plus bias should contribute to even greater accuracy than one pathway alone.
In the Sened et al. study, partners in close relationships were asked to keep diaries in which they rated their own moods and judged the moods of their partners. The couples also recorded whether they were involved in conflict on that particular day. In the first of the series of studies reported by the Israeli team, the 53 heterosexual couples that kept these diaries provided 618 diary days. Of these, the large majority of entry days (83 percent) involved no conflict, 8 percent were days in which both partners reported conflict, 6 percent involved conflict reported by the female partner only, and 3 percent featured conflict reported only by the male partner. The findings suggest that there are gender differences in perceptions of conflict, but there were too few instances on which to base reliable male-female differences. However, that difference in perception of conflict turned out to be important, suggesting a third pathway in empathy accuracy based on whether partners were judging each other's moods on a conflict-ridden day. The authors reasoned that perhaps perceiving that there’s a conflict heightens one’s negative mood, which produces its own bias force.
Subsequent studies by Sened et al. involved larger samples of diaries, but revealed similar distributions of perceived conflict as agreed upon by both partners and perceived conflict as perceived by only one partner. With larger samples and the hypothesis that there are three, not two, pathways, it was possible for the team to conduct more robust statistical analyses. These findings validated the existence of the truth and bias forces as separate pathways in predicting whether partners would accurately read the each other's moods. The indirect conflict-based pathway, as they describe it, works this way: “Some of the participants’ ability to infer their partners’ mood was associated with the confluence of their mood indeed being similar to their partners'" (p. 165). That confluence was higher when they actually had been involved in conflict. In other words, if you and your partner are actually arguing, you’ll be better at reading your partner’s unhappiness because you, too, are upset about the conflict. In the direct pathway, neither conflict nor gender made a difference.
This third, “conflict-based pathway,” seems to emerge when conflict is actually causing negative moods in your partner. When you’ve had an argument that you both agree existed, your perception of your partner’s mood will be more accurate, matching your own. It’s not just that you or your partner had a bad (or good) day, but that the emotional reactions you and your partner experience are a direct result of having argued. With enough data to test for gender differences, Sened et al. found that the conflict-based pathway was higher in men. In other words, on days involving conflict, men seem motivated to get the problem solved, as postulated earlier. Women may rely more on automatic processing (the bias force) and men on effortful processing (the truth force). It’s also possible that women are more open in expressing their negative feelings, allowing their male partners to have a better basis for judgment.