"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is,'" Kurt Vonnegut wrote in "A Man Without a Country."
It's good advice for ladies in serious relationships, according to a new study from Harvard researchers that suggests that men appreciate it when the women in their lives let them know they are happy.
On the other hand, the study suggests, women find happiness when their men open up about being frustrated or upset.
Researchers recruited 156 couples in committed relationships and asked each person to recall a time in their relationship that upset them. The researchers then compared how each of the partners reacted to that moment.
The intention was to examine how accurately one partner perceived and responded to the other's feelings.
"Relationship satisfaction is linked in different ways to men's and women's abilities to read each other's emotions, and it seems to relate more to positive emotions for men and to negative emotions for women," said Shiri Cohen, clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study. "Men's satisfaction was tied to his ability to identify when his wife [or] girlfriend is happy, but not when she is angry or upset. In contrast, women's satisfaction was tied to her ability to read when her partner is upset, hurt, or angry, but not when he is happy."
When men felt willing to express their anger or frustration, women took that as a sign that their partners were investing in the relationship, the study found. For most women studied, this translated into a sense of security or happiness for the women.
Men, by contrast, commonly expressed more fulfillment after their female partners expressed to them that they were fulfilled and satisfied in their relationships.
While the study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, ultimately found that happiness stems from a willingness to try and understand whatever emotion one's partner is feeling, men tend to disengage when negatively aroused, while women tend to engage and want to discuss the problem.
"Our finding that women's satisfaction was more strongly related to the perception that their partners were trying to understand their negative emotions than to men's actual accuracy in reading those emotions is consistent with previous research that points to the importance of believing that a partner cares about one's needs and distress, which in turn, may help to foster healthy repair of connection when conflict has arisen," said Cohen.
The findings are particularly consistent with the beliefs of many marriage counselors, said Susan Heitler, clinical psychologist and author of the online relationship skills program, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com. There is a certain skill set that goes into a successful marriage, she said, and one of those skills is being able to express positive feelings. The other is being able to discuss negative feelings in a way that is intended to heal and resolve the problems.
A relationship needs at least one person in it who can help lead a "repair discussion," Heitler said. If neither partner can do that, the hurt does not get resolved, and a bigger and bigger tear forms, she said. At that point in a relationship, "the fabric falls apart," said Heitler.
Yet since most women tend to enjoy being nurturing, she said, the idea that a woman wants to console or understand when her man feels blue makes sense.
"We get a serotonin fix from it, a spurt of well-being from having been nurturing in that way," said Heitler. "On the other hand, men find that happiness in knowing their woman is happy. It goes with the saying, 'happy wife, happy life.'"
Relationships tend to grow under positive conditions, she said, and that means a couple needs to have fun together, have sex together, laugh and enjoy one another's interests.
For some people, though, the skills needed to maintain and grow a healthy relationship do not come naturally. While some people grow up in environments that foster such values, for others, those communication and understanding skills must be learned.
"The article validates the need for these types of skills and coaching," she said. "Those skill levels are about equal between men and women, so women shouldn't get the idea that men are dunces with these types of things."