Men like to know when their wife or girlfriend is happy, but psychologists say that what women really want is for the man in their life to know when they are upset.
The study, in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that men's and women's perceptions of their partner's empathy was linked to relationship satisfaction in quite distinctive ways.
"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. 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with what is known about the dissatisfaction women often experience when their male partner becomes emotionally withdrawn and disengaged in response to conflict," explained the study's lead author, Shiri Cohen, of Harvard Medical School.
The study involved 156 heterosexual couples in a committed but not necessarily married relationship. In all, 71 percent of couples were white, 56 percent were married and their average length of relationship was three-and-a-half years.
Each participant was asked to describe an incident with his or her partner over the past couple of months that was particularly frustrating, disappointing or upsetting. The couples were told to try to come to a better understanding together of what had happened and were given approximately 10 minutes to discuss it while the researchers videotaped them. Following the discussions, the participants viewed the videotape and simultaneously rated their negative and positive emotions throughout, using an electronic rating device.
The researchers found that relationship satisfaction was directly related to men's ability to read their female partner's positive emotions correctly. However, contrary to the researchers' expectations, women who correctly understood that their partners were upset during the videotaped incident were much more likely to be satisfied with their relationship than if they correctly understood that their partner was happy.
Additionally, when men understood that their female partner was angry or upset, the women reported being happier, though the men were not. Interestingly, the researchers suggest that being empathetic to a partner's negative emotions may feel threatening to the relationship for men but not for women.
The findings, says Cohen, show that the more men and women try to be empathetic to their partner's feelings, the happier they are. She suggests that this research should encourage couples to better appreciate and communicate one another's efforts to be empathetic.
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Source: American Psychological Association