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Study tracks couples’ emotional interplay in conflicts

The Washington Post

Picture this scenario: You are on a road trip with your partner, trying to find your hotel, lost in an unfamiliar area and driving in circles.

Your partner gets agitated, body and voice tense, and says in exasperation, “We’re never going to find it!”

How do you react? Does the stress rub off on you, making you more tense, or do you try to calm your partner down?

A recent study says that your response may well depend on your gender.

Researchers from the University of Arizona found that, for couples who cooperate well, men tend to mimic their partner’s mood, while women try to regulate their partner’s emotions.

“Women try to keep the peace,” said relationship researcher and lead study author Ashley Randall.

The study, published last week in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examined 44 heterosexual couples in the United States who had been together for an average of six years. Most were living together or married.

The scientists shot video of each couple conversing about eating habits, exercise and other aspects of daily life.

The subjects then viewed the videotape while rating how positive or negative they were feeling at the time of the conversation.

Researchers also looked for signs of cooperation between the two, such as open communication, sympathy, active listening and compromise.

Among the couples who cooperated well, the partners tended to fall into gender-distinct roles, with men following an emotional lead and women seeking to moderate their partner’s emotions.

Men may do this simply to appease women.

In an example that was cited in a podcast on the study hosted by the journal, a wife asks her husband what he thinks of her outfit.

He says he likes it, but chances are, her husband’s enthusiasm won’t be enough to fully convince her and she will want to try on a few other options.

Stereotypically but also anecdotally, men avoid relationship conflict, according to couples therapist Michael Radkowsky, who was not involved in the study.

In the podcast, Randall suggests that men might be subconsciously syncing their emotions with those of their partner during cooperation in order to avoid a drawn-out discussion.

If the woman suspects that is the case, Randall said, she might become less positive in an effort to determine her partner’s true feelings.

Or, if he is excessively negative or agitated, a woman might try to temper his feelings.

In studies of parents’ interactions with their infants, similar patterns and gender differences arise. Mothers tend to calm their babies when they get excited, while fathers are quick to encourage and even heighten a child’s animated state.

Randall noted that there is a “huge link” between romantic relationships and mental and physical health. Studies have shown that married people are healthier in many ways than singles, particularly single people who have gone through the difficulty of divorce. And relationship conflict can lead to physical disorders, such as high blood pressure.

So what can a couple do when working together doesn’t come naturally?

Couples should try to “listen openly to a partner’s perspective, without judgment or defensiveness, and to negotiate — you have to be willing to give to get,” said clinical psychologist Sarah Holley at San Francisco State University.

Radkowsky, the couples therapist, agreed, saying people often believe it is the job of their partner to meet their needs, which he calls “the enemy of cooperation.”

He said each person in a couple shouldn’t be afraid to separately meet their own needs.

“People don’t grasp that part of being a happy couple is also being two strong individuals,” he said.

“It’s good to be in charge of your own mood no matter how your partner feels.”

Randall stressed that the study’s findings cannot be generally applied to the entire population, especially as it looked only at heterosexual couples.

Next, she said, she wants to conduct similar research of same-sex couples.