Are you empathetic? Is your partner? It might be the secret to a happier marriage. According to a recent study from Harvard University, being able to accurately read a partner’s emotions–and believing that your partner is trying to understand your emotions–is related to couple relationship satisfaction.
This study highlights certain gender differences that echo dynamics I’ve seen in my clinical practice and in my 23-year marriage:
1. Women are more satisfied in their relationship if their partner accurately empathized with negative emotions.
2. Men were more satisfied when they could read their partner’s positive emotions accurately.
3. Women’s ability to read their partner’s negative emotions was positively linked to both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction.
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The authors suggested that for men, being able to understand and be empathetic to their partner’s negative emotions may feel threatening to the relationship, but women don’t seem to find negative emotions threatening. Findings suggest that effort, not just accuracy, positively impacts relationships.
If your relationship is distressed or if you simply want to make a good relationship better, here are some ways to work on your empathy skills.
Listen for emotional messages
The emotional message isn’t the same as the words that your partner is saying. Your partner may be criticizing you for not spending enough time together, but the emotional message may actually be, “I miss you and I’m afraid I’m not important to you.”
Push the pause button on your own emotions
When your partner is expressing something critical, it’s easy to respond defensively. Before reacting, take a deep breath and try to slow down your own emotional response so you can hear the emotion behind the criticism.
Reflect back your partner’s emotional plea
Instead of coming back defensively with, “What are you talking about? We just went on a walk yesterday, and we went to dinner last weekend!” respond to your partner’s emotional plea by saying something like, “You really miss me and want to spend more time together. Thanks for letting me know. I love you.”
Even if you read the emotional message inaccurately, your effort to understand your partner’s emotions will pay off!