Empathetic accuracy is beneficial and also harmful to relationships


Are you good at reading your partner’s emotions?

Your perceptiveness may very well strengthen your relationship. Yet when anger or contempt enter the fray, little is to be gained and the quality of your relationship tanks, researchers find.

A new study by a team of psychologists from the University of Rochester and the University of Toronto tried to figure out under what circumstances the ability to read another person’s emotions–what psychologists call “empathic accuracy”–is beneficial for a relationship and when it could be harmful.

The study examined whether the accurate perception of a romantic partner’s emotions has any bearing on the quality of a relationship and a person’s motivation to change when a romantic partner asks for a change in behavior or attitude.

While prior research on empathic accuracy had yielded mixed findings, the new study shows that couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions, such as embarrassment, have better relationships than those accurately perceiving dominance emotions, such as anger or contempt.

The perception may be on the part of the person requesting the change, or the person receiving the request.

Lead author Bonnie Le, an assistant professor in the University of Rochester’s Department of Psychology, says the team zeroed in on how accurately deciphering different types of emotions affects relationship quality.

“If you accurately perceive threatening displays from your partner, it can shake your confidence in a relationship,” says Le, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Key findings

  • Couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions–either as the person requesting the change or the person receiving the request–have better relationships.
  • Couples where either partner feels negative emotions, regardless of whether those emotions are accurately perceived by the partner, have poorer relationships.
  • Accuracy in reading another person’s emotions does not increase the motivation to heed a partner’s request for change.

Why is the ability to change important for a partnership?

Even in the best relationships, partners invariably experience conflict. One way to tackle conflict, researchers argue, is to ask a partner to change by, for example, spending less money, losing weight, making changes to a couple’s sex life, or resetting life goals.

Yet, requesting such personal (and sometimes threatening) change can elicit negative emotions and put a strain on a relationship. That’s why figuring out how best to navigate emotionally charged situations is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship.

“If you are appeasing with your partner–or feel embarrassed or bashful–and your partner accurately picks up on this, it can signal to your partner that you care about their feelings and recognize a change request might be hurtful,” Le says.

“Or if your partner is angry or contemptuous–what we call dominance emotions–that signals very different, negative information that may hurt a partner if they accurately perceive it.”

The team–besides Rochester’s Le–is made up of Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; and Jennifer Stellar and Emily Impett, both from the University of Toronto Mississauga.

They discovered that the type of negative emotion detected matters: if you read in your partner’s expression softer emotions–such as sadness, shame, or embarrassment–you generally enjoy a strong relationship.

One possible reason is that these so-called “appeasement emotions” are read as signals of concern for the partner’s feelings.

In contrast, and contrary to the researchers’ original hypothesis, simply feeling anger or contempt–emotions that signal blame and defensiveness–rather than accurately reading those emotions in your partner, may be socially destructive for a relationship.

The team found that if even just one partner felt angry, or displayed contempt, the quality of the relationship tanked, regardless of whether the other partner’s ability to read emotions was spot on, or completely missed the mark.

Coauthor Côté says the team doesn’t exactly know why anger functions in this way. “We think reading emotions allows partners to coordinate what they do and say to each other, and perhaps that is helpful when appeasement emotions are read, but not when anger emotions are read.

Anger seems to overpower any effect of reading emotions, which is consistent with lots of research findings on how anger harms relationships.”

Yet, regardless of how well a person was able to decipher a partner’s emotions, accuracy did not increase motivation to heed the partner’s request for change.

Direct communication is key

For the study, the researchers asked 111 couples who had been dating for an average of three years to discuss in a lab setting an aspect that they wanted their partner to change, such as particular behaviors, personal characteristics, or how they controlled their temper.

The research team then switched the roles of those making the request and those who were asked to change. Afterward, the participants rated their own emotions and perceptions of their partner’s emotions, their relationship quality, and their motivation to heed those change requests.

“Expressing and perceiving emotions is, of course, important for making connections and deriving satisfaction in a relationship,” says Le. “But in order to really propel your partner to change, you may need to use more direct communication about exactly what kind of change you are hoping for.”See also

Research has shown that direct communication, whether positive or negative, is more likely to lead to change in the long run. That said, the emotional tone you take when you ask your partner for a change is important, notes Le:

“It’s not bad to feel a little bashful or embarrassed when raising these issues because it signals to the partner that you care and it’s valuable for your partner to see that. You acknowledge that what you raise may hurt their feelings.

It shows that you are invested, that you are committed to having this conversation, and committed to not hurting them. And the extent to which this is noted by your partner may foster a more positive relationship.”

Disagreements and conflicts are inevitable in intimate relationships because each partner has his or her own expectations, goals, values and perspectives (Lewin, 1948). How partners behave, think, and feel during relationship conflict has been an important topic of psychological investigation for many decades (see Bradbury and Karney, 2014 for an overview).

The current data-report extends existing research on this matter by providing data from a large-scale observational study on partners’ empathic accuracy and demand behavior during conflict interactions.

Empathic accuracy in couples is defined as the extent to which partners understand each other’s unspoken thoughts or feelings as they spontaneously occur during the course of their everyday interactions (Ickes, 2003, p. 588).

Although empathic accuracy refers to one’s understanding of the inner world of the other, which is a difficult process to operationalize, (Ickes et al., 1990) succeeded in developing a paradigm (i.e., the unstructured dyadic interaction paradigm) to measure the interaction partners’ levels of empathic accuracy in an objective but naturalistic manner.

Within this paradigm, the perceiver’s level of empathic accuracy is determined by coding the degree of similarity between the target’s reported thoughts/feelings during an interaction and the perceiver’s inferences about each of the target’s thoughts/feelings.

This paradigm has been frequently used in studies on the role of motivation in partners’ level of empathic (in)accuracy. The results of these studies have provided considerable evidence that different forms of motivation—either stable long-term motives or more transient, situational-specific motives—play an important role in the perceiver’s level of empathic accuracy (Ickes, 2011).

This motivation may be relationship-promoting, in that a certain level of accurate insight into each other is needed when partners want to effectively coordinate their individual and shared actions (e.g., in providing adequate support, Verhofstadt et al., 2011; in reinforcing perceived closeness, Simpson et al., 2003; in accommodating behavior during relationship conflict, Kilpatrick et al., 2002; Bates and Samp, 2011).

Motivation that stimulates the intention to be accurate may also stem from individual characteristics, such as being encouraged to comply with gender-role stereotypes (i.e., according to which women are more empathic; Ickes et al., 2000), or partners experiencing a sense of distrust reflected in an anxious attachment style (Dugosh, 2001).

On the other hand, there is also evidence that partners can be motivated to be less accurate when doing so helps to protect their relationship (Ickes and Simpson, 1997, 2001). Specifically, individuals are motivated to be less accurate when the partner is likely to be harboring thoughts and feelings which—if accurately inferred—would have a distressing and destabilizing effect on their relationship (e.g., Simpson et al., 1995, 2003).

As Smith et al. (2014) have noted, intimate partners are capable of “managing” their empathic accuracy, dialing it up or down depending on the demands of the situation or their own motives.

Although relationship conflict can be perceived as a threatening or stressing event, it can also be viewed as an opportunity to reconcile partners’ different goals or opinions, to expose personal needs or desires, or to express concern about the partners’ inappropriate behavior or the current status of the relationship.

By raising a certain topic of disagreement, partners generally want to change the status quo of the relationship or to induce a certain change in their partner’s opinion or behavior (Eldridge and Christensen, 2002). In the literature, this partner is referred to as the conflict initiator or the agent of change (e.g., Christensen and Pasch, 1993). This conflict initiating partner often relies on demanding communication, which is defined as the tendency to demand change in a critical and blaming manner, for example, by nagging, complaining, criticizing or “pressing” the other. The other partner may react by withdrawing, reflected in avoiding the other partner or by terminating or escaping from the conflict (Christensen, 1988).

A certain level of demand-withdraw behavior is commonly observed during conflict interactions, even in satisfied couples (Eldridge et al., 2007; Baucom et al., 2010). However, a polarized pattern of demand-withdraw behavior can be associated with relationship distress, power differences—and even violence—within the relationship (Sagrestano et al., 1999), as well as with relationship dissatisfaction in the long-term (Eldridge and Christensen, 2002).

Although some studies have reported a tendency for women to take the demanding role and men the withdrawing role (Christensen, 1988; Eldridge and Christensen, 2002), other studies suggest that the role of initiating a disagreement or the conflict topic per se is more predictive of being in the demander role than is gender (Christensen and Heavey, 1990; Heavey et al., 1993; Eldridge et al., 2007).

Consistent with the empirical evidence described above, we expect that a partner who desires change on a particular topic is likely to initiate a discussion and to behave in a way that allows him/her to bring about this desired change (i.e., by demanding).

This same individual might also be motivated to accurately infer the partner’s current thoughts and feelings about issue(s) at the heart of the conflict. Why? Because accurate insight into the thoughts and feelings of the partner during conflict might enable one to know what kinds of reactions to anticipate and which “buttons to push” in order to convince or change the partner.

Our study (Hinnekens et al., 2016) was the first to examine the question of whether intimate partners who are highly motivated to induce change in their partner during conflicts will be more empathically accurate than partners who are less motivated to do so.

The results of this study suggested that some forms of demand behavior are indeed associated with the level of empathic accuracy during a conflict interaction, thereby confirming the assumption that perceivers who are motivated to induce changes in their partner or the relationship are also motivated to accurately infer their partner’s minds in ways that enable them to exert more influence on their partner and eventually ‘push’ the partner toward the desired outcome.

The current dataset includes empathic accuracy and demand behavior data from the 310 partners of 155 couples who were observed during conflict interactions. It contributes to existing research by providing data from (a) a large sample of couples, (b) in a committed long-term relationship, and (c) it provides measures of their empathic accuracy for their partner’s thoughts and feelings separately. It therefore enables researchers to further explore the associations between empathic accuracy and observed demand behavior, as well as potential moderators of this association (e.g., gender, age, relationship duration, relationship satisfaction).

Dataset Description

The data discussed in this manuscript have been deposited in FigShare and is accessible through the following hyperlink https://figshare.com/s/1dd9ca870d12284ddfb6 under the name “Empathic Accuracy and Observed Demand Behavior in Couples.”

The deposit contains four files: (1) a.sav file, a.csv file and a.txt file containing all the raw and processed data (general information, item and total scores of the relationship satisfaction questionnaire, and raw and total scores resulting from the coding of the CIRS and empathic accuracy); and (2) a.docx file containing some additional information about the variables in the data file.

University of Rochester


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