This post is written by:
Graduate Student in Social Psychology
As a couple, you may experience some of your strongest emotions during a conflict with your partner. But how good are you and your partner at recognizing each other’s emotions? According to our recent research, couples do this fairly well. Partners are pretty good at distinguishing between hard emotions such as anger, irritation, annoyance, and aggravation and soft emotions such as sadness, hurt, disappointment, and concern. However, expressing and recognizing emotions during a conflict is a little more complicated than this.
Our research suggests the overall climate of a relationship is important in determining what emotions are expressed. If you and your partner have a climate of typically expressing anger during conflicts, then you are likely to express anger regardless of what you are currently feeling. On the other hand, if you have a climate of rarely expressing anger, then you may not express anger and it may go unnoticed.
Although anger may go undetected if not typically expressed, anger is much easier to detect than other negative emotions such as sadness. This is because people are much more sensitive to threatening emotions. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. You would benefit more from responding quickly to someone acting angry and threatening, compared to someone acting sad and who needs comfort. Our research shows that the angrier your partner is, the less sad they may appear. Interesting though, we found that couples were much better than trained observers at detecting sadness. Although couples and observers were equally likely to pick-up on anger and less likely to pick-up on sadness, couples were better at detecting sadness than observers.
Taking these findings together, couples are able to communicate emotions quite well during a conflict. Therefore, it seems as though couples may be able to read each other’s minds very well during an argument.