How men and women perceive negative emotions differently: Good news about Empathy, Part 2

Most people are aware that men are from Mars and Women from Venus, metaphorically speaking, thanks to Dr. John Gray. When we put the genders together we sometimes end up with miscommunication, hurt feelings and relationship chaos. One particular solution some couples have resorted to is avoiding negative emotion altogether. It is the “ostrich-head in the sand” approach to problem solving.   However, a recent study conducted by a group from Harvard and Bryn Mawr College and recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology, sought to understand the workings of empathy on a deeper level.

Findings suggest several interesting phenomenon regarding how men and women deal with each others negative feelings:

  1. women experience a positive perception of the relationship when their husbands express negative emotion,
  2. men feel most satisfied in the relationship when they can accurately describe their wives positive feelings, and
  3. when women express negative emotional content and their husbands try to understand and acknowledge these feelings, women experience higher relationship satisfaction.

Women felt increased satisfaction and connection when they perceived and acknowledged the negative emotions of their male partners. This would suggest that women like it when men say how they really feel, even if it is negative, because it represents investment in the relationship and emotional engagement.  Men, on the other hand, like it when women share and express positive feelings about the relationship and they are able to acknowledge those positive emotions.

So, if you are a man and you notice emotional distress in your wife, acknowledge it with curiosity, even though you may prefer she communicate positive affect. Additionally, when you experience frustration in the relationship, find the courage to sit down and share your thought and feelings with your wife at the appropriate time. When you take the time and devote the emotional energy to really trying to understand your wife’s feelings and to share how you really feel, you communicate to her that you are present with her and committed to the relationship. She may mostly want to know you are there with her.

What do these findings mean for ladies? Men can be especially sensitive to our negative emotions, so it is wise to consider our feelings before we speak. Since we mostly like to talk out feelings, simply adding remarks concerning any positive thoughts and feelings we are experiencing can affirm his role in your life and offset any potential feelings of critique. When we express negative feelings that are not acknowledged, it’s helpful to remember negative feelings are  more challenging for them to affirm. While this may be overly simplistic, I have observed men who love their wives simply desire to make their wives happy, please them and show their care for them. When women express negative feelings, men sometimes blame themselves and register failure. One way to quickly and simply pepper conversations with positivity is through a gentle smile or touch…these simple methods of non-verbal communication go miles for your men.

The good news: couples don’t have to be scared of negative feelings! In fact, when men share negative feelings, the result can be increased feelings of closeness for her. She also feels close when she shares difficult feelings and he really tries to understand. Negative emotions in a relationship can be difficult, but with the use of empathetic and compassionate communication, couples can find their way. Often we find negative emotions so difficult that we push them away, and sometimes this works, at least temporarily. The more ideal response to negative emotion is to be curious about it. Instead of judging yourself or your spouse for what they feel, seek to understand the deeper feeling with empathy.

A final word: It IS possible to be too honest, too open and share feelings that wound deeply. Please don’t take this information as permission to tell your spouse every negative feeling you’ve ever felt! Mental editing is required and non-reactivity is the key to effective communication. Stay calm even if you let yourself share something negative. If you get too hot, press pause and come back to the conversation after you’ve both cooled down.

Want to learn more about what happens in couple’s therapy? Check out “The ABCs of Creative Family Therapy Techniques,” for more information.

Cohen, S., Schulz, M. S., Weiss, E. & Waldinger, R. J. (2012). Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 236–245


Clinical Director at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute

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