UA research shows emotional cooperation in men and women may be quite different

Published on June 27, 2013 at 8:34 AM · No Comments

Cooperation is essential in any successful romantic relationship, but how men and women experience cooperation emotionally may be quite different, according to new research conducted at the University of Arizona.

Ashley Randall, a post-doctoral research associate in the UA's John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and the UA's department of psychiatry, has been interested for some time in how romantic partners' emotions become coordinated with one another. For example, if someone comes home from work in a bad mood we know their partner's mood might plummet as well, but what are the long-term implications of this on their relationship?

Randall wondered how the act of cooperating, a beneficial relationship process, might impact emotional coordination between partners.

"Cooperation - having the ability to work things out with your partner, while achieving mutually beneficial outcomes - is so important in relationships, and I wondered what kind of emotional connectivity comes from cooperating with your partner?" she said.

What she found in her recent study - published in SAGE's Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and featured in the journal's podcast series, Relationship Matters - were surprising gender differences.

She and her colleagues found that during high mutual levels of cooperation with a romantic partner, men typically experience an "inphase" response to their significant other's emotions. That is, if the woman in the relationship is feeling more positive, the man will feel more positive. If she feels less positive, he will feel less positive.

On the contrary, it seems women experience more of an "antiphase" pattern during high mutual cooperation. If her partner is feeling more positive, she will tend to feel less positive, and vice versa.

Take, for example, the following familiar scenario: A woman emerges from a department store fitting room and asks her husband what he thinks of a potential new shirt. He likes it, he says, hoping his time at the mall is nearing an end. So does the woman head straight to the cash register and make the purchase? Probably not. Chances are, her husband's enthusiasm won't be enough; she'll want to try on a few more shirts first.

Social psychology literature on cooperation tells us that women generally tend to cooperate more, while men often try to avoid conflict. Thus, men might be subconsciously syncing their emotions with their partners' during cooperation in an effort to avoid conflict or reach a speedy resolution, Randall says.

If that's the case, it's possible, although Randall's study didn't test for it, that women may pick up on the fact that their partner's agreeability is not entirely authentic. If she suspects he's not really as positive as he seems, or that he has an ulterior motive, she may become less positive herself in an attempt to get at his real feelings and reach a more mutually satisfying resolution, Randall suggests.

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