Lead author Shiri Cohen of Harvard Medical School in Boston recruited 156 heterosexual couples for the experiment -- 102 came from the Boston area and were younger, urban, ethnically and economically diverse and in a committed but not necessarily married relationship.
The remaining participants from Bryn Mawr, Pa., were older, suburban and middle-class married couples with strong ties to the community.
Each participant was asked to describe an incident with his or her partner over the past couple of months that was particularly frustrating, disappointing or upsetting. The couples were told to try to come to a better understanding together of what had happened and were given about 10 minutes to discuss it while the researchers videotaped them. Following the discussions, the participants viewed the videotape and simultaneously rated their negative and positive emotions throughout.
The study, published in the American Psychological Association, found relationship satisfaction was directly related to men's ability to read their female partner's positive emotions correctly. However, contrary to the researchers expectations, women who correctly understood that their partners were upset during the videotaped incident were much more likely to be satisfied with their relationship than if they correctly understood that their partner was happy.
Believing your partner is trying to be empathetic is more important to the relationship than actual empathy, Cohen said.