What Couples Who Communicate Well Do Differently

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Countless books and articles have been written on the importance of communicating in romantic relationships, but a recent study suggests that there's one aspect of communication that stands out above the rest: empathy. The study, published last month in Psychological Science, found that feeling empathy mattered more than simply listening to what partners had to say. To find this out, the researchers gathered 91 couples (86 heterosexual and five same-sex) for a role-playing exercise. Each person in the couple was randomly assigned one of two roles: the support provider or the support recipient. The couples were then given a topic to discuss on camera for five minutes. This topic was either one of the support receiver's personal stressors (like work pressures or family issues) or a point of conflict between the two of them (like jealousy or lack of communication). Then, the researchers separated the couples and had them watch their filmed conversations twice. During the first viewing, participants recalled and recorded the thoughts and feelings they had throughout the conversation; during the second viewing, they tried to infer their partner's thoughts and feelings. Support providers were also asked to rate how concerned they felt for their partner's well-being during the discussion. Overall, support providers who rated themselves as more concerned about their partner's problem were perceived as more responsive by their partners. But when support providers rated themselves as less concerned, their partners reported feeling that he or she didn't fully understand or care about them. In other words, if participants truly empathized with their partners' distress, they responded in a more concerned and thoughtful way — and it showed. Of course, these findings aren't groundbreaking — truly caring about your partner probably does make a big difference in how effectively you communicate. And even though the sample was fairly small, it's nice to have a study remind us that we probably shouldn't just mindlessly listen to our partners talk about his or her bad day. A little compassion goes a long way.

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