Your husband had something important to tell you. Maybe he was worried. Maybe he’d been hurt. Maybe it was a past experience that he’d been thinking about a lot lately. He needed to talk to you about it. Telling you made him feel strangely vulnerable. He’d never told anyone before. So it felt like a big risk telling you. He really needed you to hear how he was feeling.
Or perhaps your wife had something important to tell you. Something had happened at work that made her really angry. It had completely ruined her day and she was still seething. She needed to vent her fury. She didn’t need you to take it personally. She just needed you to listen and understand.
But you blew it. You didn’t spot the signs. You didn’t recognise the importance of what you were hearing. Maybe you weren’t paying attention. But you misread the situation altogether.
So it escalated from there. Your lack of empathy set a whole negative cycle in motion. Feeling unacknowledged or misunderstood made your spouse angry. He or she then said things in anger. You retaliated and began a tit-for-tat cycle of pointing the finger at one another. Or perhaps you disengaged completely to try and walk away from the argument. That just made the whole situation worse. Either way, before you knew it, you were pushing and shoving one another. Or worse.
High levels of conflict in a marriage are bad news for the emotional well-being and health of the couple and also for their children. Apparently a quarter of us have experienced physical aggression like this.
A new study, out this week in the Journal of Marriage and Family, has looked at how misunderstandings lead to aggression. In their paper “Empathic accuracy and aggression in couples“, researchers Shiri Cohen and colleagues looked at how men and women tend to lose their tempers and react aggressively towards one another in response to slightly different issues.
Previous research in this area has been limited to a handful of studies suggesting men get aggressive because they misread their wives as being critical or rejecting. Women’s aggression may stem from husbands misreading wives’ level of hostility during an argument. So men take offence where none was intended and women feel most misunderstood when they’re angry.
Cohen and colleagues recruited 109 couples reflecting a diverse range of age, education, income and ethnicity. Just over half had experienced physical violence in the previous year. In most of these cases, it was both partners who had been aggressive, rather than just one person.
Couples were filmed discussing recent issues that had made each partner cross. They then watched the videos, identified the most emotive parts of the discussion and tried to describe their own feelings as well as what they thought their partner was experiencing. In this way the researchers could see how accurately each person could read their partner’s feelings and in what context, then link it to whether they had been aggressive in the past year.
Interestingly, they found that women’s aggression was linked to their own empathic accuracy in a way that was not true for men. So men’s inability to read the situation accurately didn’t seem to determine their own likelihood of getting aggressive. The authors suggest the reason women who misread their partners tend to be more aggressive may be because women then feel more vulnerable and less “on top” of the interaction.
What appeared to make men more aggressive was women’s inability to read either vulnerability or positivity. So if a man had something to say that made him feel either exposed or elated, he was more likely to become aggressive if a woman couldn”t empathise accurately.
What appeared to make women more aggressive – apart from when they were themselves unable to read men accurately – was when men misread their feelings of hostility during an argument. .
The overall message of this study is that all of us need to make an effort to read our spouse’s emotions accurately if we are to avoid unpleasant arguments. Easier said than done for many, I suspect.
But it also underlines that whenever we are emotionally aroused, whether in positive or negative ways, we can help ourselves and help avoid misunderstandings by making those feelings crystal clear.
Now say after me:
“I really need you to hear that I feel angry/elated/scared/vulnerable right now.”