April 2, 2018

How well do couples pick up on one another’s feelings? Pretty well, when the emotion is happiness, says family psychologist Chrystyna D. Kouros. But a new study finds that couples do poorly when it comes to knowing their partner is sad, lonely or feeling down.

“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 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.

Read more at SMU Research.