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Few couples can tell when their partner is sad: Study finds most are good at spotting happiness but it takes tears to trigger sympathy

  • The team at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas got couples of different ages, races and relationship lengths to keep diaries about their mood 
  • Each person also had to diary about their partner's mood for a week
  • They found few accurately picked up on their partner's feelings of sadness  

Few couples gauge when their partner is sad unless they shed a tear or state it obviously, a new study has found. 

While most are good at picking up on each other's happiness, researchers found it takes a lot more for a partner to respond to subtle signs of sadness or loneliness.  

The team at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas interviewed a diverse range of couples of different ages, races and relationship lengths, asking them to keep diaries about their mood and their partner's mood every night for a week. 

They found that, across the board, most interpreted their partner's sadness as something else, or didn't pick up on it at all. 

The lead author, psychology professor Chrystyna Kouros, said the findings should spur all couples to think more carefully about how their partner expresses themselves and to watch out for tell-tale signs they may not be spotting.  

Researchers said couples need to stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling, to pay more attention, and to communicate more - even if (or especially if) they have been together for a long time

Researchers said couples need to stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling, to pay more attention, and to communicate more – even if (or especially if) they have been together for a long time

'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,' Kouros said.

'They might be missing important emotional clues.' 

Some people are better at this process of 'empathic accuracy', picking up on their partner's emotions, than others, she said – but it's generally rare. 

While it may not warrant therapy, even a negative mood that isn't related to the relationship can be harmful to its future, Kouros warned.

The study involved 51 couples, who completed daily diaries about their mood and the mood of their partners for seven consecutive nights.

This differed from usual approaches to the topic, which have relied on interviewing couples in a lab setting about feelings related to conflicts in their relationship.

Professor Kouros said this field of research is particularly important since partners are usually the primary source of social support for one another. 

She added: 'Failing to pick up on negative feelings one or two days is not a big deal.

'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.'

She said the finding, published in the journal Family Process, is consistent with earlier research that shows couples tend to assume their partner feels the same way they are, or thinks the same way they do.

But she added: 'With empathic accuracy you're relying on clues from your partner to figure out their mood.

'Assumed similarity, on the other hand, is when you just assume your partner feels the same way you do.

'Sometimes you might be right, because the two of you actually do feel the same, but not because you were really in tune with your partner.' 

The best approach, Professor Kouros said, is for couples to stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling, to pay more attention, and to communicate more – even if (or especially if) they have been together for a long time.  

'I suggest couples put a little more effort into paying attention to their partner – be more mindful and in the moment when you are with your partner,' Kouros said. 

But she cautions against becoming annoying by constantly asking how the other is feeling, or if something is wrong.

She said: 'Obviously you could take it too far. If you sense that your partner's mood is a little different than usual, you can just simply ask how their day was, or maybe you don't even bring it up, you just say instead “let me pick up dinner tonight” or “I'll put the kids to bed tonight”.'

Even so, partners shouldn't assume their spouse is a mind-reader, expecting them to pick up on their emotions.

Professor Kouros said: 'If there's something you want to talk about, then communicate that. It's a two-way street.

'It's not just your partner's responsibility.'

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Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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