When your partner is miserable, it’s not uncommon for their misery to start rubbing off on you too.
As humans, we tend to take on the emotions of the people around us. Researchers refer to this phenomenon of “catching” someone else’s feelings as “emotional contagion.” It happens because we unconsciously imitate the other person’s body language or facial expressions. Then, “through a variety of physiological and neurological processes, we actually feel the emotions we mimicked — and then act on them,” Wharton School management professor Sigal Barsade wrote for the Harvard Business Review.
So, for example, seeing someone scowl causes you to scowl. And then because you scowled, you start feeling irritated, too.
“We are naturally attuned to our loved ones which likely enhances this capability even more,” Marni Feuerman, a marriage and family therapist in Boca Raton, Florida, told HuffPost.
“Deeply empathetic people might be especially prone to feel their partner’s emotions as if they are their own.”
The close relationship you share with your partner makes you particularly susceptible to catching their emotions. That’s why it can be so hard to stay positive when the person you love is moody, stressed out, pessimistic or going through a tough time.
“It usually doesn’t ‘feel right’ to be in an opposite mood of your partner, whom you care for genuinely,” said clinical psychologist Aarti Gupta, founder and director of TherapyNest in Palo Alto, California. “Deeply empathetic people might be especially prone to feel their partner’s emotions as if they are their own.”
So what can you do if you feel like you’re being negatively impacted by the person you love? Below, therapists offer some advice.
First, pay attention to how your partner’s moods are affecting you.
“Self-awareness is critical in these situations,” Feuerman said.
The next time your significant other snaps at you because they’re frustrated with a job they hate, check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling. You might notice that your heart rate has increased, your jaw is clenched or you feel tightness in your chest. When you slow down, you can pick up on these cues before they overwhelm you.
“You could pause for a few seconds, acknowledge that you’re feeling annoyed and frustrated with your spouse, remind yourself that it’s okay and natural to feel that way, and then ask yourself what the most helpful way to move forward might be,” clinical psychologist Nick Wignall wrote in a blog post.
Work on untangling your partner’s feelings from your own.
“A partner’s bad mood can feel like a roller coaster of emotions,” Gupta said. “And it’s important to understand what you are actually thinking and feeling as opposed to what you are unconsciously mimicking.”
To counteract this, Gupta recommends focusing on taking good care of yourself so that you’re more in touch with how you feel.
“Foster healthy habits — eat and sleep well, spend time in nature and prioritise self-care,” she said. “This time with yourself can help you think more clearly about what you actually think and feel.”
Know that you can support your partner without taking on their negative emotions.
It’s possible to find a middle ground between getting swept up in their feelings and ignoring what they’re going through, Gupta said.
“And with some observation and practice, you can find that place,” she added.
It’s also important to distinguish between empathy and compassion. When you empathise with someone’s suffering, you feel the same pain they do.
“This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in [you] and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal,” social neuroscientist Tania Singer said in an interview with the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.
When you practise compassion, however, you show concern for how the other person is feeling without shouldering their pain. It allows for some healthy emotional distance.
“You are not responsible for their happiness.”
So what might this look like when your partner is in a bad spot?
“Perhaps this means validating and offering a positive reframe, or listening to your partner with an open mind while taking deep breaths,” Gupta said.
Resist the urge to ‘fix’ whatever problem your partner is dealing with.
Don’t try to come up with a solution to your partner’s emotional turmoil — you’ll both just end up more frustrated.
“Most people struggling emotionally don’t want someone to fix their pain, they want to feel understood,” Wignall wrote. “Bake that into your brain because it’s one of the most counterintuitive but universally true laws of human psychology I can think of. And once you really believe it and start acting accordingly, everybody starts feeling better.”
Give yourself permission to be happy, even if your partner isn’t.
Yes, you care deeply about your partner’s wellbeing, but ultimately you need to remember that their emotions are outside the scope of your control.
“You are not responsible for their happiness,” said Philadelphia marriage and family therapist George James. “If you’ve tried to support your partner, the next thing you can do is things that keep you happy. Reading, exercising, hobbies and friends can sometimes be an example for your partner as well.”
Just as negative emotions are contagious, so too are positive ones. By prioritising your own happiness, you may end up uplifting your partner in the process.
Consider talking to a therapist together.
Your partner may benefit from making a one-on-one appointment with a mental health counsellor if their moods have become unmanageable.
But when their negative outlook has put strain on the relationship, it’s necessary to address the situation as a unit too.
“If the conversation feels like it is going in circles, it might be time to seek professional help where the dialogue can be facilitated by a skilled therapist or coach,” Gupta said.