Newswise — In our primary relationship, we all want to be understood. We want our partners to "get" us. Whether we're upset or joyful or sad, whether we're disappointed, excited, or discouraged, we want our partner to accept and understand what it is we're feeling.

But it turns out that more important than empathic accuracy — when our partner has an accurate read on our emotions — is empathic effort — the fact that our partner wants to understand us and is making that desire abundantly clear.

Research reported in the Journal of Family Psychology found that both men's and women's relationship satisfaction was associated more with a perception of effort by a partner than whether the partner was actually accurate in identifying emotions. Which isn't to say that empathic accuracy makes no difference; indeed it does. The same study found that relationship satisfaction for men was tied to their own ability to accurately read their partner's positive emotions. "I see she/he is content in our relationship, which contributes to my own satisfaction." For women, relationship satisfaction was tied to their partner's ability to accurately read their negative emotions. "I know he/she recognizes and understands the difficult emotions I’m feeling, which contributes to my own satisfaction."

How is empathic effort conveyed? Verbal and non-verbal signals are both involved: good eye contact, serious listening (see "How to 'Get It'"), posture that indicates "I’m settling in to listen and understand," plus words like these:

"Tell me what you're feeling emotionally."

"Talk to me about what happened so I can appreciate what you're going through."

"You don't seem okay. What are you feeling?"

"I want to understand your emotions."

"I sense something's up with you. Can you talk to me about what you're feeling?"

For many, the results of the aforementioned study are initially surprising — doesn't empathic accuracy always feel satisfying? — but ultimately an affirmation of what we know matters most: that our partners care enough to make the effort to see and hear us emotionally. "When my partner is serious about understanding my feelings, I know I matter. Being understood is important, and we can usually get there through conversation. But what I value most is seeing that the interest is there, that there's a sincere effort to know and understand what's going on with me."

References & Citations

Cohen, Shiri, et al. "Eye of the beholder: The individual and dyadic contributions of empathic accuracy and perceived empathic effort to relationship satisfaction." Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 26(2), Apr 2012, 236-245.