Misery Loves Company

Why we choose partners whose moods match our own. The emotional tone of relationships is set at the starting gate.

By Kaja Perina, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015

Does misery love company, or does misery make company equally
miserable? Psychologists have long pondered whether couples and close
friends are depressed in tandem because one person's mood poisons the
well, or because people gravitate toward significant others with the
same traits.

In the first longitudinal comparison of mood in romantic partners
and roommates, Chris Segrin, a professor of psychology and
communications at the University of Arizona at Tucson, found that
emotional tone is set at the starting gate.

Segrin surveyed 153 dating couples and 170 pairs of roommates for
three months. He concluded that women's emotional states—positive or
negative—were unrelated to changes in their boyfriends' moods and vice
versa. Moreover, couples that had been dating longer were no more likely
to mirror each other's emotional states than were newly minted partners.
"I was surprised by how similar the partners' moods remained over time. I
thought there'd be much more fluctuation," says Segrin.

There was evidence of short-lived emotional contagion: Severely
depressed subjects were more likely to have a roommate whose mood
declined over a six-week period than were less depressed subjects. But
subjects cheered up noticeably when they spent time away from their
miserable roommates. "Emotional contagion doesn't last for weeks; it is
more fleeting and transient," says Segrin, who thinks people believe
otherwise because "the idea that you 'catch' emotions like you catch the
flu is seductively simple and parsimonious."

While this study focused on depressive mood, Segrin's results were
the same for people with sunny dispositions. "Couples were as matched on
positive affect as on negative affect. Happy people seek out happy
people, and those who are down and out seek the same."