Are you an empathetic partner?

by Alex Crenshaw — October 28, 2021


Almost everyone agrees that empathy is important for relationships. Yet, if you ask different people what empathy is, you’re likely to get different answers. This is because empathy is actually made up of several related, but separate components. These are: 1) feeling concern for someone’s wellbeing (empathic concern), 2) identifying how someone else is feeling (empathic accuracy), and 3) “catching” others’ feelings, causing you to feel similarly to them (emotion contagion).

Which components of empathy are important for relationships?

All components of empathy contribute to healthy relationships. Empathic concern helps us feel motivated to listen to and be there for our partner. Empathic accuracy helps us know what they might be feeling so we can respond optimally. Emotion contagion helps us share the joys and the sorrows with our partner, bringing us closer together and fostering intimacy.

Are women better than men at reading others’ emotions?

This is a common belief that aligns with gender role stereotypes of “women’s intuition” and of women being more relationally oriented than men. However, research finds that men and women actually do not differ in their ability to read others’ emotions. Instead, they often differ in motivation. On average, women tend to be more motivated to understand others’ emotions then men, so women tend to do better at it as a result. However, when that difference in motivation goes away—such as when there is extra motivation to get it right, or when stress takes priority over empathizing with the other person—the gender difference also goes away! And anyway, these are only general trends—there are much bigger differences across individuals within gender groups than there are differences between genders themselves.

I’m good at reading people’s emotions—am I set? / I’m bad at reading other people’s emotions—am I doomed?

We tend to have strong intuitions about how good (or bad!) we are at reading other people’s emotions. However, research finds that our perceptions of our emotion-reading abilities are not that great. When comparing what people say about their ability to read others’ emotions and how they actually perform, the two do not align.

So what’s the best way to know if we are reading someone’s emotions accurately?

First, simply ask the person how they’re feeling, or alternatively, offer your interpretation and ask them if you got it right. Second, try to reduce stress, which can make it more difficult to understand others. Third, stay humble. Studies show that even healthy couples get it wrong more than they get it right: empathic accuracy rates tend to range from 20% to, at best, 50%, which is all the more reason to ask and get feedback before making firm conclusions. A bonus is that asking may improve our accuracy over time, as at least one study has found that we get more accurate at reading others’ emotions when we get feedback on our reads. Finally, we don’t always need to know exactly what someone is feeling to be an effective support: sometimes showing concern and interest is enough.