When it comes to the tiffs (or the full-blown fights) that inevitably come up in relationships, it turns out that a woman doesn't need the man in her life to feel her pain. She just needs to think that he's trying to feel it.
In a new study from the American Psychological Association, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Bryn Mawr College worked with 156 heterosexual couples who had been together for an average of three and a half years. The point was to examine how important your significant other's 'perceived empathetic effort' -- the degree to which he or she seems to be at least attempting to understand why you're feeling a certain way -- is to you if you're a woman or a man.
For women, satisfaction in a relationship was most strongly associated with feeling that their partners' were making that effort -- no matter whether their partners actually understood them or not.
“Women may place greater value on partners’ empathic effort, perhaps because this behavior emphasizes the desire and investment of their male partners to be attentive and emotionally attuned in the relationship,” the authors wrote in the study, which was published online by the Journal of Family Psychology.
For men, that effort mattered too, but a stronger indicator of their relationship satisfaction was whether they were able to identify when their partners were happy.
To find out how much couples value empathy, the researchers asked the participants in the study to watch videotapes of themselves with their partners discussing a recent incident that had produced disagreement. While watching highlights from the tapes, the men and women assessed what their partners had been feeling, what they had been feeling and how much their partners had attempted to understand the latter.
Recognizing signs that the other person was making an effort to empathize was important to both partners, but more so to women. More gender differences emerged in which emotional cues the men and women felt better about having picked up on in each other. Although the men felt better when they were able to tell that their partners were experiencing positive emotions, they didn’t feel so great about the state of their union when they were detecting negative emotions in the women. The women, on the other hand, reported greater satisfaction after being able to detect their partner’s emotions, good or bad.
The authors of the study suggest that the men might have responded the way they did because for them anger or stress in a girlfriend or wife can feel threatening to the relationship. They cited previous research indicating that believing your partner’s emotions to be less negative than they actually are can help couples stay together.
None of which means that you should conceal your feelings from your partner, or stop attempting to genuinely understand what the other person is feeling.
Despite the apparent gaps in how men and women experience empathy, the researchers maintain that making an effort to see where your partner is coming from will make both parties feel better.