News on Couples and Empathy: Reader Beware
“When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without taking responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good. When I have been listened to, when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on.” – Carl Rogers
The results of a new research study underscoring the importance of empathy for marital satisfaction, just hit the web and weekly news magazines. Before you ask yourself why in God’s name we needed research to confirm such an obvious observation, let me explain how I came upon this and why I chose to write about it.
I was reading The Week, one of the few magazines I happily read cover to cover. In the Health & Science section, where I often discover new research that I delve into for my blog, there was a tantalizing headline, “Why Women Seek Conflict.” What is this about? Since this would be news, at least to me, I continued.
The one paragraph synopsis I was reading opened with the line: “Men who say that their wives or girlfriends deliberately pick fights may be on to something.” Now, both intrigued and incredulous, I had to investigate further. I read the whole research article, published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
What I discovered had nothing to do with why women seek conflict. Instead I found an interesting piece of good research from a highly qualified team at Harvard Medical School and Mass General Hospital. The research was all about empathy. The study, entitled “The Eye of the Beholder,” looked not only at empathic accuracy, which has already been studied, but also looked at perceived empathic effort. In non-psychology research talk, the point was to find out whether couples felt closer and happier with their relationships when a partner correctly understood them (empathic accuracy) or when they could see that the partner was even trying to understand (perceived effort).
The research found some similarities between the sexes as well as a few differences. As the great psychologist Carl Rogers noted, accurate empathy feels damn good– for everyone. But the differences are noteworthy, especially for psychotherapists working with couples. Men’s relationship satisfaction is uniquely associated, the researchers found, with their ability to know when the women are happy.
When men are attuned to the women’s anger and sadness, it helps the women feel closer but doesn’t necessarily change how close the men feel. Another difference between genders is that while women were happier in relationships where the men were more accurate in their empathy for both positive and negative emotions, what was most important to women was whether or not they felt their partner was trying to understand their feelings even when they weren’t accurate.
An important part of any relationship counseling should be to increase awareness of both your own feelings and that of your other family members, helping partners as well as parents and kids to walk a mile in the other’s moccasins. This new research should underscore how marriage therapists can help men to understand that learning about and acknowledging painful emotions has an important payoff–the happiness of their mate.
When men withdraw or refuse to share either their own pain or that of their partner, the women feel less connected and cared about. Just making the effort makes a big difference. Therapists should also impress upon the women just how important it is to talk about their positive emotions, sharing openly when they are feeling happy and close.
One final point about believing everything you read…Make sure that you read the fine print when you see dramatic headlines. Now that you know (and can check out the link for lots more detailed information) what this particular study was really about, here are a few more headlines I found on the web featuring this research: “Every Comedian Was Right: Women are Happy when Men are Miserable” and “Upset Men and the Happy Women Who Love Them” and “Why Ladies Love Angry Men.”
Reading these headlines got me pretty steamed since the point seemed to be to entice readers through sensationalism rather than sharing the facts.
I’ve got one last question, does anyone out there really understand how I’m feeling?
Man consoling woman photo available from Shutterstock.
Manchester MacMannis, D. (2012). News on Couples and Empathy: Reader Beware. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 31, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/parenting-tips/2012/03/the-importance-of-empathy/