How often do significant others hide their emotions from each other? More than you might think, according to a new study.

By Real Simple
Updated March 03, 2017

Being in a loving, committed relationship means you know your partner pretty much inside and out. But a new study suggests that even the most satisfied soul mates can misinterpret each other’s emotional responses to certain situations. In fact, the happier you are, the more likely you may be to read your partner the wrong way.

The study focused on two types of emotional coping mechanisms that don’t have a lot of obvious, visual signs: the tendency to hide one’s emotions behind a calm “poker face” (known as expressive suppression) and the ability to change one’s perspective to see the silver lining in a bad situation (known as cognitive reappraisal).

To see how accurately people were at judging these strategies in their partners, researchers recruited 240 college students (120 couples) who’d been dating for at least six months and up to four years. Each partner filled out surveys about their own emotional behaviors, as well as their significant others’.

Most people were fairly accurate at rating their partners' emotional responses, regardless of how long they’d been together. But the researchers did notice an interesting trend: Overall, people tended to underestimate the extent to which their partners hid their emotions. And people who reported higher relationship quality also tended to overestimate their partners’ abilities to “look on the bright side” of a bad situation.

These errors in judgment aren’t necessarily a bad thing, says lead author Lameese Eldesouky, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. Suppression is often considered a negative trait, while reappraisal is considered a positive one, she explains. And it makes sense that romantic partners would by “blinded by love” in a sense, downplaying each other’s negatives and accentuating their positives.

In some ways, this can even be healthy, Eldesouky adds. “There’s been research showing that having positive allusions about your partner is really good for a relationship,” she says.

But couples can learn a thing or two from the findings. “I think people might want to pay more attention to certain kinds of emotional cues that their partner might be expressing,” she says, “and make an effort to be more perceptive to whether he or she is hiding something.”

And although the study doesn’t address this directly, Eldesouky says it’s also a good idea to work on not suppressing your own emotions from your partner. According to previous research, doing so on a regular basis can damage the long-term quality of relationships.

The study also found that women tend to overestimate their partners’ ability to look on the bright side more so than men, and that couples who reported higher relationship quality were more likely to think their partners' emotional behaviors were similar to their own. Because the couples in the study were relatively young and weren’t married, the researchers say that partners’ perceptions might be different among people who’ve been together for much longer.