What are couples who report high levels of satisfaction with their partners doing differently from those who don’t? A recent meta-analysis of 21 different research articles about Empathetic Accuracy reveals some interesting insight into the nature of satisfying relationships.
Empathetic Accuracy (EA) is a term that describes the extent to which people use their ability to accurately perceive and assess the mental states of their peers to arrive at accurate inferences. In other words, how well can you read the verbal and non verbal communication that your partner is using and how well can you interpret this information in meaningful ways?
The authors of this meta-analysis found a significant relationship between EA and relationship satisfaction among couples. Specifically, EA related to expressions of negative emotions were strongly related to reported relationship satisfaction.
So how do we improve our abilities to correctly interpret and respond to our partner’s expressions of emotions, especially negative ones?
In order to improve EA we must seek to improve our ability to empathize. This means we need to learn how to better understand and relate to the feelings and emotions of others. Doing so takes courage because it requires that we place another person’s feelings or emotions above our own, at least temporarily. Strong empathizers are skilled at recognizing things like distress or joy in another person and are able to respond to another person’s emotions in a way that conveys they understand and appreciate the other person’s distress or joy. It does not mean that the empathizer agrees with the emotion or feeling of another, but it does require the empathizer to acknowledge and value what the other person is experiencing. Being able to value the feelings of another person, even when we don’t feel the same way, is critical to relationship development and sustainability.
Why do people not learn to empathize?
Ideally, we learn empathy during childhood within the context of our families of origin. Empathy is a learned skill and therefore, if it’s not learned or learned well during our formative years, we can still learn these skills later in life. Many people do not learn to empathize as children and grow up in families that teach them maladaptive ways of interacting instead. Learning to manipulate others through deception, verbal/physical/emotional or sexual abuse, negativity, passive-aggressiveness, avoidance or other maladaptive patterns of behavior is common. We often bring these ways of relating into our adult relationships and then wonder what went wrong when the relationship suffers or ends.
Learning to empathize requires that we feel safe first. We must believe that our feelings are valuable and worthy to be expressed and acknowledged, before we can extend this courtesy to others. If you are struggling with empathy in your relationships, I suggest you seek therapy to help develop your own sense of self first. Once you create a reality in which your feelings are safe and valued, you can begin to learn how to offer this same courtesy to others.
How do I improve my empathetic accuracy in relationship?
Once you feel fairly confident that your own emotions, feelings and experiences are valuable and worthy of respect, you can start to learn how to improve your EA with others. It is often helpful to start with a period of intentional observation. Find a comfy seat in a bustling public place, maybe an airport or mall, and then just observe the people around you. Notice the faces and postures of people who walk past. Count how many people appear happy and how many people appear stressed or sad. Watch people interact with one another. Can you pick up on someone else’s non verbal communication better than the person they are trying to communicate with? Watch how people respond to each other and note who is doing a good job paying attention to others and who is not. How many people appear to be “in their own little world?” Do this exercise as many times as you need to. Don’t move on to the next step until you feel this exercise has become repetitive and you have observed multiple people interacting in multiple situations.
Once you feel confident in your ability to recognize stranger’s emotions and feelings, move on to observing your significant other. Don’t comment, just observe. What do you notice about your partner when they walk in the door in the evening? What does their facial expression tell you? What about their posture? Do they look energized and confident, tired and withdrawn, aggressive or playful?
After spending a reasonable amount of time observing your partner, start asking questions about how they are feeling or what they are thinking about. Do this in a non-judgmental, curious way. You’re conducting your own research, after all! Keep a journal if it helps you remember and make an effort to recall what emotions/feelings/thoughts your partner expresses with which facial expressions, postures and tones. You may be surprised to learn that your partner, who looks haggard and annoyed each evening, is actually anxious and worried about how you will respond to their anxiety. It is critical to include a person’s verbal and non verbal communication in our assessment of them. Relying on only verbal communication or only non verbal communication doesn’t help us form a complete picture of what’s going on and often leads to misunderstandings and relational conflict.
Once you’ve gathered enough information about your partner’s verbal and non verbal communication, start to think about how you would like your partner to respond to you if you switched roles. So, for example, if your partner walks in the door looking tired and annoyed but tells you they feel anxious, imagine that you are tired and anxious and walking through the door instead. What might your partner do that would help you feel less anxious and more relaxed?
Now, PAUSE. This is a common place where people stop in their attempts to empathize. Most of us are fairly skilled at thinking through what we would like to happen if we were in someone else’s shoes. And it is important to know what we need and want from others. But it is equally important to recognize that often, what our partner needs or wants is not the same as what we need or want. Being able to identify what our partner needs and wants is the tricky part. And this requires a degree of humility as we admit that others’ needs and wants are separate from ours but equally valid.
You can try offering your partner the response that would best suite you in the same situation. This is a fine place to start. Just don’t let it be the place you stop. Pay attention to how your partner responds to your response and then adjust your response as needed. If you don’t know how to respond differently, it’s a good idea to just ask your partner. You can try saying something like this:
“I noticed you seem anxious and exhausted when you walked in the door today. I wanted to comfort you by asking you how your day was but that seemed to make you more anxious. What can I do in the future to comfort you better?”
If you’ve never had a conversation with your partner that sounds like this, it might be awkward at first. But that’s okay. Learning to improve your EA is like learning anything new. It takes time and effort and you will make mistakes along the way. Remember the first time you learned to swim or drive a car? There were likely lots of awkward moments where you felt very unsure of yourself and even embarrassed. Don’t let uncomfortable feelings keep you from learning and improving the invaluable relationship skill of emotional-accuracy. The health and longevity of your relationship likely depends on it!