Much Ado About Nothing: The Result of Biases about Partners’ Negative Emotions
February 23, 2016
Amy Newberg in Research Spotlight, accuracy, attachment, attachment anxiety, avoidance, biases, communication, emotions

Positive feelings are pretty common in relationships – love, passion, support, and care are all usual occurrences. However, negative experiences can occur as well, such as jealousy, anger, or frustration. In these moments, some people may have difficulty regulating their own negative emotions and dealing with partners’ anger and frustration. Often, partners’ negative emotions are particularly important to recognize because they communicate problems in the relationship that need attention. Psychologists have set out to explore how attachment may be related to people’s ability to accurately identify negative emotions that partners are experiencing.

If you regularly read this site, you’ve already learned a lot about attachment styles. As a quick summary, attachment describes the way people bond with others. Anxious individuals seem “clingy” – they’re concerned with being abandoned by romantic partners and need a lot of reassurance that they’re loved. Those who are avoidant, however, prefer to be independent and more distant from partners. Secure people are more of a happy medium – they are comfortable with being close to their partners, but aren’t overly concerned with being abandoned. You can learn more about attachment styles here.

A partner’s anger or frustration isn’t fun for anybody, but may be particularly hard on avoidant individuals. Nickola Overall and colleagues have investigated how avoidant attachment affects how people identify and perceive negative emotions that their partners are experiencing.1 The researchers compared how accurately avoidant participants, as compared to anxious or secure individuals, could identify anger, sadness, or hurt in their partners. In particular, the researchers wanted to know if avoidant participants were less accurate than anxiously or securely attached participants in identifying these emotions and gauging how intensely their partners experienced those emotions. In one study, couples had two discussions in which they talked about changes each partner wanted to see in the other. For example, the couple would first discuss Partner A’s desired change about Partner B, and then they would discuss Partner B’s desired change about Partner A. Next, both partners watched the videotape of their “desired changes” discussions and reported their negative emotions at that moment during the discussion and their perceptions of their partners’ negative emotions at each 30 second mark of the recording. By doing this, the researchers were able to compare the partners’ actual feelings to the participants’ perceptions of their partners’ feelings to assess accuracy in identifying emotions and intensity of those emotions.

The researchers found that avoidantly attached individuals were no better or worse than secure or anxious people at identifying when their partners experienced negative emotions, but they consistently overestimated how negatively their partner was feeling. So, when their partners were angry, hurt, or frustrated, avoidant individuals were more likely to perceive partners as being more angry, hurt, or frustrated than the partners themselves reported feeling at that moment. Additionally, when highly avoidant individuals perceived their partners to be experiencing high levels of negative emotion, those avoidant individuals displayed more hostile and negative behavior during the discussion. In other words, when avoidant participants believed their partners were feeling especially negative (which they believed happened more often than the partner reported), they responded in a more hostile way.

In a second study, participants recorded their own negative emotions, their partners’ negative emotions, and both peoples’ hostile behaviors every day for three weeks. Again, avoidant individuals were no different than secure or anxious individuals in recognizing a partner’s negative emotions, but significantly overestimated the intensity of negative emotions their partners were feeling. Highly avoidant individuals also reported using more hostile behaviors on days when they believed their partners to be experiencing highly negative emotions.

This pattern of findings across two studies suggests that avoidant individuals have more negative biases about their partners’ emotions, and when they perceive their partners’ feelings as more negative, they engage in more hostile behaviors. Why might avoidant individuals perceive their partners’ emotions inaccurately? These inaccurate perceptions may be guided by expectations people have about relationships in general. Avoidant people are reluctant to engage closely with romantic partners, and, to protect themselves against conflict, may anticipate partners to act more negatively than they actually would. So, if you expect that romantic partners are generally untrustworthy and unreliable, you may perceive your partner in a more negative way. This bias can be pretty harmful, especially in light of the researchers’ finding that avoidant people responded with more hostility and more defensiveness in response to highly negative emotions from their partners. From this research, it seems that avoidant people may expect their partners to be more angry or upset than they actually are. Although the researchers didn’t explore the consequences of hostile behaviors in their studies, you can imagine that hostile behavior could have a detrimental effect on relationships, such as limiting effective conflict resolution, stifling open communication, or diminishing positive experiences between partners. As these studies demonstrate, expectations about romantic partners, separate from partners’ actual behavior, can have important implications for relationships.

1Overall, N.C., Simpson, J.A., Fletcher, G.J.O., & Fillo, J. (2015). Attachment insecurity, biased perceptions of romantic partners’ negative emotions, and hostile relationship behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(5), 730-749.

Amy Newberg, Ph.D Student, UMass Amherst - Science of Relationships articles
B.S., Florida State University

Broadly, Amy’s research focuses on adult attachment, couples’ communication, and how couples perceive their relationships. Currently, she is interested how romantic partners choose to negotiate with each other in disagreements. Amy uses self-report methods as well as behavioral coding to explore her research questions.


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