In our primary relationship, we all want to be understood. We want our partners to "get" us. Whether we're upset or joyful or sad, whether we're disappointed, excited, or discouraged, we want our partner to accept and understand what it is we're feeling.
But it turns out that more important than empathic accuracy — when our partner has an accurate read on our emotions — is the empathic effort — the fact that our partner wants to understand us and is making that desire abundantly clear.
A recent research found that both men's and women's relationship satisfaction was associated more with a perception of effort by a partner than whether the partner was actually accurate in identifying emotions. Which isn't to say that empathic accuracy makes no difference; indeed it does. The study also found that relationship satisfaction for men was tied to their own ability to accurately read their partner's positive emotions.
For women, relationship satisfaction was tied to their partner's ability to accurately read their negative emotions.
How is empathic effort conveyed? Verbal and non-verbal signals are both involved: good eye contact, serious listening, the posture that indicates "I’m settling in to listen and understand," plus words like these:
"Tell me what you're feeling emotional."
"Talk to me about what happened so I can appreciate what you're going through."
"You don't seem okay. What are you feeling?"
"I want to understand your emotions."
"I sense something's up with you. Can you talk to me about what you're feeling?"
For many, the results of the aforementioned study are initially surprising — doesn't empathic accuracy always feel satisfying? — but ultimately an affirmation of what we know matters most: that our partners care to make the effort to see and hear us emotionally. "When my partner is serious about understanding my feelings, I know I matter. Being understood is important enough t, and we can usually get there through conversation. But what I value most is seeing that the interest is there, that there's a sincere effort to know and understand what's going on with me."