Couples 'see anger but miss sadness during spats'
Married couples are usually good at recognizing each other's emotions while they are fighting, researchers say
But if your partner is angry, that might tell more about the overall climate of your marriage than about what your partner is feeling at the moment of the dispute, according to a study conducted by a Baylor University researcher.
"If your partner is angry, you are likely to miss the fact that your partner might also be feeling sad," said Keith Sanford, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences.
"I found that people were most likely to express anger, not in the moments where they felt most angry, but rather in the situations where there was an overall climate of anger in their relationship – situations where both partners had been feeling angry over a period of time.”
"This means that if a couple falls into a climate of anger, they tend to continue expressing anger regardless of how they actually feel ... It becomes a kind of a trap they cannot escape," he said.
However, the common spats that might worsen deal with in-laws, chores, money, affection and time spent on the computer.
Sanford discovered that when people express anger, they often also feel sad. But while a partner will easily and immediately recognize expressions of anger, the spouse often will fail to notice the sadness.
"When it comes to perceiving emotion in a partner, anger trumps sadness," he said.
Previous research has found that genuine expressions of sadness during a conflict can sometimes draw partners closer together, and it potentially can enable couples to break out of a fight.
"A take-home message is that there may be times where it is beneficial to express feelings of sadness during conflict, but sad feelings are most likely to be noticed if you are not simultaneously expressing anger," Sanford said.
The conclusions were based on self-reporting by 83 married couples as well as observation and rating of their behavior by research assistants, who were given permission by the couples to videotape them through a one-way mirror.
Couples were asked to choose two areas of clash and talk to each other about them.
They also were asked to rate their emotions and those of their partners before and after each conversation.
Sanford said that couple’s "insider knowledge" of one another might be expected to make it easier for them to read each other.
The study showed that the only time in which couples made significant use of insider knowledge to distinguish emotions was in interpreting soft emotions - such as hurt or disappointment - in conflicts about specific events.
Besides this Sanford also said that while women expressed soft emotions more, they were no better at perceiving hard emotions (such as anger) or soft ones.
The study has been published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Family Psychology.