“Wow, honey. That sounds rough. I totally get how you feel.”
These are comforting words to a woman’s ear – even if they’re insincere, researchers have found. In fact, believing a partner is trying to empathize is more important to relationships than actual empathy, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.
“It could be that for women, seeing that their male partner is upset reflects some degree of the man’s investment and emotional engagement in the relationship, even during difficult times,” said the study’s lead author, Shiri Cohen, of Harvard Medical School. “This is consistent with what is known about the dissatisfaction women often experience when their male partner becomes emotionally withdrawn and disengaged in response to conflict.”
Empathy is important to men and women in completely different ways, the study found.
Researchers recruited 156 heterosexual couples, of which 56 percent were married. (Average length of relationship: three and a half years.)
Each participant was recorded while describing an incident with a partner that was frustrating, disappointing or upsetting. Researchers played back the recordings to the partners and videotaped couples as they discussed the incidents in the recordings. Afterwards, the participants viewed the videotape and rated their own emotions on a scale ranging from “very negative” to “very positive” using an electronic device.
Participants completed questionnaires about their feelings during the clips as well as their perceptions of their partners’ feelings and efforts to relate to them during the discussion. Participants also answered questions designed to measure relationship satisfaction.
The results reinforced the Mars-Venus divide.
Researchers found that women’s ability to read their husbands’ negative emotions in the video clips was positively linked to both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction.
For men, however, knowing that a wife or girlfriend was happy was linked to relationship satisfaction, whereas understanding that a female partner was angry or upset had the opposite effect.
The authors suggested that being attuned to a partner’s negative emotions may feel threatening to the relationship for men but not for women. Nevertheless, they pointed to the study as evidence that cultivating empathy has a positive effect on relationships.
The subtext is clear: happy wife, happy life. But men like feeling heard too.
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