Understanding under duress : the influence of a major life stressor and daily stressors on empathic accuracy
Empathic accuracy, the ability to understand a close other’s thoughts and feelings, may be critical to the long-term success of a relationship. Yet, it is unclear whether stress, either chronic or acute, interferes with relationship partners’ ability to be empathically accurate. The present study investigates whether stress interferes with empathic accuracy between partners by investigating potential changes in it across a major life stress, the transition to parenthood. The transition to parenthood has been shown to be disruptive to both individual well-being and relationship satisfaction and is an ideal uniform stressor to examine both how a major life stressor and the daily stressors associated with that major stressor may interfere with an individual’s ability to understand their partner. Using a daily diary study of 78 couples expecting their first child, couples reported on their own and their partners’ daily mood for 3 weeks during three separate time periods across this transition: pregnancy, infancy, and toddlerhood. To examine empathic accuracy, I used West and Kenny’s (2011) statistical approach for modeling directional bias and tracking accuracy in perceptions. Results showed that couples are accurately tracking daily changes in their partners’ mood, but that partners’ accuracy drops significantly when their child is an infant (approx. 10 weeks old) and remains low in toddlerhood. However the daily stressors of this transition (e.g., baby fussiness and sleep quality) did not significantly influence partners’ empathic accuracy. This suggests that the major life stressor of this transition, but not the daily stressors, interfere with daily dyadic behaviors which may have implications for relationship functioning.