4 Reasons to View Your Relationship from a New Perspective

New study shows the value of seeing your relationship from your partner's eyes.

Posted Jan 09, 2021

When your partner is having a tough day, how do you respond? Do you go about your ordinary activities without acknowledging your partner’s unhappiness, or do you try to find out what’s making your partner’s life so difficult at the moment? Perhaps you're pretty good at slipping into the mind of others to see the world from their eyes. Most importantly, when this ability involves your partner, this mental shift can allow you to go on to help alleviate that distress.

This quality of perspective taking is closely related to empathy, in which you can feel what someone else is feeling. However, as explained by University of New England’s Vanessa Cahill and colleagues (2020), perspective taking involves more than this ability to sense other people’s feelings. You can also sense what the other person is thinking. In their words, perspective taking “is a cognitive aspect of empathy, linked to mentalizing and involving the capacity to understand that others have their own perspectives, motives, emotions, and histories that influence their behavior” (p. 1025).

In other words, when you empathize you feel what other people feel, but when you can take their perspective you are quite literally adopting their mindset. What's more, perspective taking is a general skill that applies to many situations, not just those involving your partner. Indeed, as the authors note, perspective taking is strongly related to emotional intelligence, allowing you to interact more effectively with others in general.  

The idea is as simple as this. You’re sitting across the kitchen table from your partner. You see your partner, and whatever is behind your partner’s seat. If you can take your partner’s perspective, you can also get a mental picture of what your partner sees when looking at you. It’s as if there were a mirror in front of you and you could observe how you look and act. Perhaps you’ve complained that your partner’s clothes are rumpled and shabby. However, what about yours? Are you dressed in your comfy sweats which, to be honest, haven’t been washed in a few days? Is that what your partner sees when looking at you?

The purpose of Cahill et al.’s study was to determine the extent to which the quality of perspective taking can benefit partners in a close relationship. As they note, based on prior research, “The idea of mentally “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is typically understood as a way to cultivate understanding and compassion for another person” (p. 1025). Once you can accomplish this mental feat you could then go on to gauge what your partner is feeling, or what prior researchers call “empathic accuracy.”

The difference between perspective taking and empathy may seem overly academic to you, so it may be easier to understand the distinction by looking at the types of questionnaire items that the U. of New England authors included in their study. Try rating yourself on these two items:

“I try to look at my partner’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

“I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the ‘other guy’s’ point of view.”

These items don’t focus on emotions, per se, but instead ask individuals to rate their ability to adopt the other person’s point of view. People high in perspective taking may not necessarily feel what the other person feels, but they are able to name their partner's thoughts and act accordingly.

One standard way of measuring perspective taking in couples is to place them in a lab setting, recording them while they talk about a sensitive area within the relationship. Then each partner watches the video and tries to state what the partner is thinking at particular points in the video. The partner, in turn, engages in the same guessing game, and then both compare their judgments. Researchers also use this experimental method to score the empathic accuracy of couples, or their ability to go on and judge what each of them is feeling at those various points in the video.

Moving on to the actual Cahill et al. study, the authors conducted a large-scale statistical analysis of data derived previously by other researchers involving 4,678 participants across 20 different samples. The key variables of interest were perspective taking measured by items such as those you read above, and relationship satisfaction, measured with standard questionnaire instruments. The correlations across these studies ranged from -.20 to +.49, with the average amounting to +.21, a value the authors maintain is well within the acceptable range for research in social psychology.

Because these studies were entirely correlational, the researchers note that they are left with the usual problem in this type of work with an inability to claim a causal direction in the findings. However, their working theory suggests that high relationship satisfaction is more likely to be an outcome of high perspective taking rather than vice versa.

Why should perspective taking be such an important predictor of relationship satisfaction? The following 4 points, noted by Cahill et al., suggest that you would be well-advised to try to improve your own ability to see the world from your partner's eyes:

  1. Being able to read your partner's thoughts allows you to be more tuned in to how your partner reacts. This, in turn, helps you to nip conflicts in the bud before they threaten the smooth running of your relationship.
  2. When you’re high in perspective taking, your partner will regard you in more favorable ways because you appear to be fair and open-minded.
  3. Perspective taking helps you feel closer and more connected to your partner because you are more likely to share your partner’s world view.
  4. Your initial choice of a partner will have been better because seeing how other people react to situations will help you find a more compatible partner in the first place.

Having established the value of perspective taking, the question then becomes one of whether, it this is a trait, it’s also an ability that you can learn. You may not, in other words, be someone noted for your ability to share other people’s points of view, but if you’re motivated to help improve your relationship, you can practice on the person you care about the most.

Recalling how Cahill and her colleagues measured perspective taking, you can take a page from their playbook. Rather than using a video as they did, you could accomplish this in real time by stopping the conversation with your partner from time to time for a “perspective check.” Your partner could, of course, also benefit from this simple exercise. The learning process may involve some trial and error, but the result can become worthwhile as you learn to titrate each other’s reactions to get them to match more closely with each trial.

To sum up, perspective taking may be a trait as the U. of New England authors maintain. However, with practice, you and your partner may be able to compensate for what you lack as a natural ability with the kind of communication that, over time, will strengthen the bonds in your relationship.

Facebook image: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

References

Cahill, V. A., Malouff, J. M., Little, C. W., & Schutte, N. S. (2020). Trait perspective taking and romantic relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(8), 1025–1035. doi:10.1037/fam0000661.supp (Supplemental)