ST. LOUIS — “I had no idea you were upset!” It’s a timeless phrase uttered in spats between partners, and it turns out there’s some science to it. Even those in the strongest, long-term relationships may struggle to interpret the emotional cues of their partner, a new study finds.

couple in love
Even the happiest of couples tend to miss on emotional cues when a partner is upset, a study finds.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, conducted a study with 120 straight college students who were in a steady relationship, ranging from 18 to 25 in age. The couples had all been together for at least six months and as much as four years. The authors hoped to examine how these individuals perceived their partner’s methods of regulating emotion.

Specifically, the team looked at two coping mechanisms that a partner may use: expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal. The former could be illustrated by an individual hiding painful emotions behind a poker face. The latter would often manifest itself through an individual finding a silver lining in a tough predicament.

To this point, lead researcher Lameese Eldesouky, noted in a university release how couples “tend to underestimate how often a partner is suppressing emotions and to overestimate a partner’s ability to see the bright side of an issue that might otherwise spark negative emotions.”

Happier couples see their partners in a more positive light than do less happy couples,” she explains.

In addition, since a woman is more likely to see her partner in a more positive light than a man would, they often overestimate their partner’s ability to look at negative circumstances with optimistic eyes.

Other findings included support for the notion that individuals who thought they had an “emotional” partner, were less likely to believe their partner actively hid their emotions; and that partners who were happier were suspected of using cognitive reappraisal more often than they actually did.

A previous study by many of the same researchers found that men were more likely to use suppression than females, which isn’t a good quality, as suppression can adversely affect a relationship in the long-term.

(Reappraisal, meanwhile, is “considered a positive trait,” the researchers note.)

Eldesouky et al. published their findings in the Journal of Personality.

About Daniel Steingold

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