There might be something to that whole “he-said, she-said” thing: A new study shows that your reaction to what you think your partner is feeling during a fight can color your feelings and response during the fight — whether or not your partner is actually having those emotions.
The study, out of Baylor University, examined 105 students in romantic relationships and how they argued over a two-month period. The researchers divided emotions into two categories: hard (assertion of power) and soft (expressing vulnerability). They also identified two concerns: perceived threat (hostility, criticism) and perceived neglect (lack of commitment).
Depending on which type of emotion you think your partner is having, that triggers concerns (perceived threat or neglect), which then influence what emotions you feel. Picture this: It’s irrelevant whether your partner actually did blame you for, say, spilling your Diet Coke on his laptop’s keyboard (hard emotion). If you feel blamed, you’re going to perceive a threat, then you’re going to respond with an equally hard emotion and blame him right back, maybe for leaving the computer open on the kitchen table in the first place.
But Dr. Keith Sanford, who conducted this study, says this a lot better than I could:
“In other words, what you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings and reactions in yourself, whether what you perceive is actually correct,” Sanford said. “In a lot of ways, this study confirms scientifically what we would have expected. Previously, we did not actually know that these specific linkages existed, but they are clearly theoretically expected. If a person perceives the other as angry, they will perceive a threat so they will respond with a hard emotion like anger or blame. Likewise, if a person is perceived to be sad or vulnerable, they will perceive a neglect and will respond either flat or soft.”
There’s no reliable way to rein in your emotions, especially when things get heated, but this study makes a case for that handy, time-tested relationship maxim: Communicate, communicate, communicate. When you feel like you’re going to fly off the handle, better to try and voice what’s making you upset than slinging more barbs his way. Easier said than done, I know.