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 January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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."