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How Partners Affect Each Other’s Moods During Important Life Discussions: Relationship Matters Podcast #24

In the 24th installment of SAGE's Relationship Matters podcast, produced and hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Ashley Randall (Arizona State University) talks about her research on how men and women experience cooperation within a relationship differently and how romantic partners influence each other’s daily moods (for better and for worse). The research, coauthored with Jesse Post, Rebecca Reid, and Emily Butler (all of Univ. of Arizona), focuses on the premise that our romantic relationships influence our overall health and well-being. Relationships have the capacity to either serve as a buffer against stress’s negative effects in our lives or, in contrast, add to the daily stress we experience.

Dr. Randall explains, “Our partners can either lessen the effects that stress has on our relationship, maybe by coping together or cooperating, or we can ignore our partner when they come home from a bad day and maybe not listen to some of the things they want to talk about...not being able to work together with our partners can really have negative effects on our well-being, not only in the moment, but long-term effects as well.”

The researchers studied how one person’s emotional experiences are linked to a partner’s emotional experiences --- or what the research teams refers to as ‘emotion transmission.’ Dr. Randall elaborates, “I may be experiencing something at one time, not necessarily having a good day for instance, and then I come home. My partner had a fine day, but when I come home and declare ‘Oh my gosh, this day was horrible and I have all this work to do,’ you can begin to understand how my partner might say, “Well, geez, I guess I’m not in that great a mood after all and I’m not feeling quite as positive as I was when I came home.’ “

For this particular study, the researchers wondered how emotions were linked between partners when they cooperate or fail to cooperate. Specifically, the group brought couples in to the lab to discuss various life issues . For example, they were asked to discuss “How willing are each of you to make sacrifices (e.g., spend more money, take time out from other activities)”. Afterwards, each person independently watched a video recording of their discussion and rated how positively and negatively they were feeling throughout the discussion.  

So what did they find?

Men and women in the study, despite showing similar behaviors during the discussion, actually experienced the conversation quite differently.

Dr. Randall explained, “When a man’s partner was more positive, he became more positive. And when she become more negative, he also became more negative. So, for men, they seem to follow in line with what their partners feeling… For women, when her partner was less positive, she tended to be more positive. And when he was more negative, she tended to be less negative.”

So, in this research, men tended to synchronize and follow the emotional tone of their partners. Women, in contrast, attempted to regulate the mood more actively, responding more to her partner’s emotion. This work supports the idea that when a woman expresses negative or positive emotion in a conversation, the man is more likely to match the emotion. However, when the man expresses a negative emotion, his partner may be more likely to flip to a positive emotion to try to regulate the overall conversation for the better.

Dr. Randall is quick to point out, however, that there are lots of exceptions to every rule -- these are larger group effects and one can’t presume that these conversational and emotional dynamics occur in the same way in every relationship between a man and a woman.

The podcast can be heard in its entirety here, and the full research paper can be read here.

Randall, A. K., Post, J. H., Reed, R. G., Butler, E. (in press). Cooperating with your romantic partner: Associations with interpersonal emotion coordination. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,  doi: 10.1177/0265407513481864

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