Empathizing With a Partner’s Emotional Ups and Downs

New research shows that sharing a partner's joy is great for your relationship.

Posted Feb 05, 2018

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” The idea that we should provide support for our partners when times are bad as well as good is so important, it’s included in standard marriage vows.

Research shows that partners who empathize with one another’s negative emotions experience greater satisfaction with their relationships. When we go through tough times, it’s reassuring to know that our closest companion is with us every step of the way. As the saying goes, “Misery loves company."

Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock
Source: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

But what about when everything is going great? What about when we’re feeling happy and joyous? If our partners vicariously feel these positive emotions as well as the negative, how does that affect our relationships?

In a recent study, Michael Andreychik of Fairfield University decided to find out. He invited 175 men and women to answer questions about their relationships. The volunteers reported how strongly they felt their partner connected to their emotions. They also rated how satisfied they were with their relationships.

The results of the study showed that people who perceived greater empathy for their negative emotions were more satisfied with their relationships. This effect was not negligible, but neither was it especially powerful. The effect of empathy for a partner's positive emotions, however, was five times stronger.

Why is this? Andreychik speculates that it could be because sharing positive emotions is less risky: If your partner is upset or going through a stressful time, providing support can be difficult. Sharing concern is reassuring to some partners, but it can make others feel smothered, resentful, or weak. Simply put, during happier times it is less likely that sharing a partner’s feelings risks making them feel worse.

So, although it is great to be there for your partner when they’re sad, anxious, or angry, it is perhaps even more important to share their positive emotions. By expressing excitement over his or her achievements, sharing their amusement at a funny story, and encouraging them when they meet their goals, you not only double your joy but you also forge a more satisfying relationship.

References

Andreychik, M. R. (in press). I like that you feel my pain, but I love that you feel my joy: empathy for a partner’s negative versus positive emotions independently affect relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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