Anger in spats is more about marital climate than heat of the moment, study shows

May 21, 2012

How good are married couples at recognizing each other's emotions during conflicts? In general, pretty good, according to a study by a Baylor University researcher. But if your partner is angry, that might tell more about the overall climate of your marriage than about what your partner is feeling at the moment of the dispute.

What's more, "if your partner is angry, you are likely to miss the fact that your partner might also be feeling sad," said Keith Sanford, Ph.D., an associate professor of and neuroscience in Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences. His study — "The Communication of Emotion During Conflict in " —is published online in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Family Psychology.

"I found that people were most likely to express anger, not in the moments where they felt most angry, but rather in the situations where there was an overall of anger in their relationship – situations where both partners had been feeling angry over a period of time," he said. "This means that if a couple falls into a climate of anger, they tend to continue expressing anger regardless of how they actually feel . . . It becomes a kind of a trap they cannot escape."

Common spats that might fester deal with in-laws, chores, money, affection and time spent on the computer.

Sanford found that when people express anger, they often also feel sad. But while a partner will easily and immediately recognize expressions of anger, the spouse often will fail to notice the sadness.

"When it comes to perceiving emotion in a , anger trumps sadness," he said.

Previous research has found that genuine expressions of sadness during a conflict can sometimes draw partners closer together, and it potentially can enable couples to break out of a climate of anger.

"A take-home message is that there may be times where it is beneficial to express feelings of sadness during conflict, but sad feelings are most likely to be noticed if you are not simultaneously expressing anger," Sanford said.

The findings were based on self-reporting by 83 married couples as well as observation and rating of their behavior by research assistants, who were given permission by the couples to videotape them through a one-way mirror. Couples were asked to choose two areas of conflict and talk to each other about them — one chosen by the wife, the other by the husband. They also were asked to rate their emotions and those of their partners before and after each discussion.

Couples' "insider knowledge" of one another might be expected to make it easier for them to read each other, Sanford said. But the only time in which made significant use of insider knowledge to distinguish emotions was in interpreting soft emotions -- such as hurt or disappointment -- in about specific events, the study showed.

While women expressed soft emotions more, they were no better at perceiving hard emotions (such as ) or soft ones, Sanford said.

Explore further: Society bloomed with gentler personalities and more feminine faces

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A good fight may keep you and your marriage healthy

Jan 22, 2008

A good fight with your spouse may be good for your health, research suggests. Couples in which both the husband and wife suppress their anger when one attacks the other die earlier than members of couples where one or both ...

Women happier in relationships when men feel their pain

Mar 05, 2012

Men like to know when their wife or girlfriend is happy while women really want the man in their life to know when they are upset, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

Was Darwin wrong about emotions?

Dec 13, 2011

Contrary to what many psychological scientists think, people do not all have the same set of biologically "basic" emotions, and those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, according to ...

Anger makes people want things more

Nov 01, 2010

Anger is an interesting emotion for psychologists. On the one hand, it's negative, but then it also has some of the features of positive emotions. For a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Associ ...

Study: Men good at anger, women with joy

Jun 13, 2006

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study shows men are good at noticing angry faces, with women good at noticing surprised, sad or joyful expressions.

Recommended for you

Soccer's key role in helping migrants to adjust

11 hours ago

New research from the University of Adelaide has for the first time detailed the important role the sport of soccer has played in helping migrants to adjust to their new lives in Australia.

Congressional rift over environment influences public

Jul 31, 2014

American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, finds new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

User comments : 0