- Many people can correctly perceive the thoughts and feelings of their friends, family members, and romantic partners.
- One study showed that most couples displayed empathic accuracy, or the ability to “read the minds” of their counterparts.
- Research suggests that we can improve our empathic accuracy if we are highly motivated to accurately understand our partners.
Have you ever felt like you could feel your partner’s feelings or thoughts? Or do you feel like you have no idea what’s going on in your partner’s head? Researchers who examine our ability to accurately detect the thoughts and feelings of our romantic partners explore what they call empathic accuracy. And although there seem to be individual differences in this ability, most of us can correctly perceive the thoughts and feelings of our friends, family members, and romantic partners (Thomas and Fletcher, 2003).
Mind-Reading in Romantic Couples
To assess couples’ mind-reading abilities, Thomas and Fletcher (2003) videotaped young adult dating pairs discussing problems causing conflict in their relationships. They then asked each member of the couple to watch the videotape separately, and specifically to note the thoughts and feelings they remembered having during the course of the discussion. Then the individuals watched the same video again and tried to determine the thoughts and feelings their partners were experiencing during the discussion. The researchers found that most couples displayed empathic accuracy, or the ability to “read the minds” of their counterparts; one partner correctly related the same thoughts and feelings the other partner reported having during the discussion.
We seem to be particularly good at identifying the thoughts and feelings of our own romantic partners: Friends of the couples described above, as well as strangers, attempted to perform the same task, but the romantic partners were much better at identifying the thoughts and feelings evidenced by their counterparts.
Superior empathic accuracy in dating partners may stem from their enhanced familiarity with one another, or from their prior discussions of the same topics (Thomas and Fletcher, 2003). Further, individuals in dating couples were better at detecting their partners’ feelings when they had been dating longer, and women better understood their partners than men. Interestingly, greater empathic accuracy among couples was related to stronger feelings of closeness as well as increased relationship satisfaction. Other research corroborates that empathic accuracy is positively associated with the relationship satisfaction of both members of the couple (Haugen et al., 2008). However, due to the correlational nature of these data, it may be that increased empathic accuracy causes more relationship satisfaction, or it may be that couples in particularly satisfying relationships are better at reading each other's thoughts and feelings.
Can You Increase Your Empathic Accuracy?
Given its positive correlation with relationship satisfaction, researchers are exploring how to increase empathic accuracy. Your very interest in understanding your partner may enhance the accuracy with which you perceive him or her. Research suggests that we can improve our empathic accuracy if we are highly motivated to accurately understand our partners (see Thomas and Fletcher, 2003). This interpretation is bolstered by the finding that married couples show less empathic accuracy after their first year of marriage (Kilpatrick et al., 2002). Some researchers believe that the marriage commitment decreases the feeling that we need to try to retain our mates through other means. (Click here for a discussion of sexual motivation and mate retention in marital and non-marital relationships.)
Given that increased empathic accuracy is associated with better relationship outcomes, we should all try to better understand our partners’ thoughts and feelings. If you have trouble discerning what your partner is going through, ask him or her to describe his or her feelings.
Haugen, P. T., Welsh, D. P., & McNulty, J. K. (2008). Empathic accuracy and adolescent romantic relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 31(6), 709-727.
Kilpatrick, S. D., Bissonnette, V. L., & Rusbult, C. E. (2002). Empathic accuracy and accommodative behavior among newly married couples. Personal Relationships, 9(4), 369-393.
Thomas, G., & Fletcher, G. J. (2003). Mind-reading accuracy in intimate relationships: Assessing the roles of the relationship, the target, and the judge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1079.