A continuing line of research from Baylor University shows that couples are pretty good at recognizing emotions in each other, but they are less likely to detect sadness if their partner is angry.
"When it comes to perceiving emotion in a partner, anger trumps sadness," said psychologist Keith Sanford, author of a study in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Sanford, who is also a clinical psychologist, specializes in how people resolve conflicts, and in this study he sought the answer to a basic question. Are spouses any good at detecting the emotions of their mates, especially during an argument?
Participants in the study discussed a source of marital conflict and were then rated on how successful they were in picking up emotions in their mates -- ranging from "hard" (angry, annoyed, irritated, and aggravated,) to "soft" (sad, hurt, concerned or disappointed.)
"If a husband expresses soft emotions, like he's feeling sad, is the wife going to pick up on it?" Sanford said in a telephone interview. "By and large they do, but there are some complexities."
Among the 83 couples that participated in his study, he found that anger overshadows soft emotions, like sadness, so much that the partner is likely to miss it entirely. The fact that we would recognize anger more quickly than sadness is not surprising, he added, because numerous studies by others have shown that humans can easily detect anger even in the face of a stranger.
"It makes sense, from an evolutionary point of view, that we would recognize very quickly when someone is posing a threat to us," he said. "We might need to respond more quickly when someone is angry and going to attack us than if they are feeling sad and need some comfort and help. Missing anger might have more negative consequences than failing to recognize that someone else is feeling sad."
This research takes that a step further, showing that when a person is angry, he or she is less likely to show signs of sadness, or other so-called soft emotions.
"The more angry someone was, the less sad they appeared," Sanford said.
Interestingly, although the couples had more trouble detecting sadness than anger, they were much better at it than trained observers. Eleven researchers who did not know the participants watched through a one-way mirror as the partners tried to resolve a dispute.
"In terms of recognizing anger they [couples and observers] were essentially equal," Sanford said. "But in terms of recognizing the soft emotions, the couples picked up on things the observers could not detect."
The study supports the "common wisdom" that "couples really read each other's mind very well," he said.
But were these couples really typical? Sanford said he thinks so, although he notes in the study that 82 percent of the participants were Caucasian, and the expression and perception of emotions varies among cultures.
The couples had been married an average of 10 years, they were above average in income, and most were in their mid 30s. And like so many couples, 22 percent fell in the "distressed" range on a marital satisfaction scale.
The power of anger to overshadow sadness could deprive couples of one of the best tools for resolving conflict, Sanford indicated.
"Soft emotions that express vulnerability and sadness are more relationship focused," he said. "Being sad or hurt can sometimes draw couples back together. Those emotions can soften an argument and make it easier to resolve."