The effect of stress on empathic accuracy in romantic couples


Accurately understanding the thoughts and feelings of romantic partners, termed empathic accuracy, is critical for optimal relationship functioning. Empathic failure is linked to common reasons couples seek therapy (Doss, Simpson, & Christensen, 2004; Jacobson & Christensen, 1996) and is either implicitly or explicitly a target of many couple therapies (e.g., Jacobson & Christensen, 1996). More specifically, couple therapies target partners’ abilities to accurately understand one another preceding and during conflict, periods characterized by high levels of stress. The current study tests the hypothesis that acute stress can be harmful for empathic accuracy in romantic couples, and tests two competing path models of the impact of stress on accuracy. Results show that an acute stressor affected accuracy of men and women differently, impairing accuracy in women but not observably affecting men’s accuracy. The effect of the stressor on empathic accuracy for women was mediated by curvilinear arousal, and men’s accuracy was also associated with curvilinear arousal. This pattern of results suggests that moderate arousal is optimal for empathic accuracy for both men and women, but this effect was twice as large for women relative to men. These findings point toward potential avenues to improve existing couple therapies by incorporating strategies to mitigate the effects of stress, thereby increasing couples’ ability to accurately understand one another in therapy. These findings also suggest strategies for couples to be optimally productive when having important relationship conversations by attending to their level of arousal.

In Journal of Family Psychology

Full Citation:
Crenshaw, A.O., Leo, K., & Baucom, B.R.W. (2019). The effect of stress on empathic accuracy in romantic couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(3), 327-337.