We think we outgrow peer pressure as we become adults. Adults are supposed to be independent and think for themselves, right? To a certain extent, this is true; however, psychologists have studied a phenomenon known as emotional contagion, in which people “catch” the emotions and moods of the people they are around. This can happen when a person smiles at you on the subway or yells at you in traffic. After these situations, you may subconsciously mimic the mood by smiling or scowling for some time after the encounter. Emotional contagion has even stronger and more long-term effects when it occurs between people who interact on a regular basis. This definitely happens between friends and family members but can have the strongest impact in a marriage, often the closest bond in a person’s life.
The Stages of Emotional Contagion: How Does This Happen?
• Stage 1—Mimicry: Psychologists have studied how individuals subconsciously copy the nonverbal cues of the people they are around. This can include tone of voice, facial expressions, and any movements or gestures. If your spouse raises his voice in excitement a lot, you may also start to talk loudly and expressively.
• Stage 2—Feedback: When we copy someone’s frown, we often begin to feel sad. When we copy someone’s smile, we may cheer up. The mimicry we are doing in stage one begins to turn into actual emotions, shaping our mood.
• Stage 3—Synchronization: This last stage only occurs when individuals share their experiences on a regular basis, increasing both the bond between them and the ability to impact each other’s moods. If your spouse is a generally upbeat person, you may begin to feel more positive even when you are not around her.
Who Is Vulnerable?
Everyone is vulnerable to emotional contagion! All human beings are affected by their surroundings. The following are some of the people that may be most vulnerable to “catching feelings” from their friends and loved ones:
• Introverts are more susceptible to adopting the positive emotions of others.
• Extroverts are more vulnerable to be affected by negative moods.
• Women are sometimes more likely to experience negative emotional contagion because they are socialized to be receptive and attentive towards the emotional needs of others.
• Those who express strong emotions are less affected by those who have different feelings; however, their moods can be strongly intensified by those with similar emotions.
The Effects of Emotional Contagion
It is a great thing to transmit positive emotions within a relationship. This is why it is so important to be around people that uplift us and help us to notice the happy things in life. Negative emotional contagion is unfortunately also a powerful force in relationships. It can be as easy to pass on a bad mood as a cold, and like a cold we have no idea that is it happening until it is too late. Studies show that someone married to a depressed spouse is more likely to become depressed. It can be easy for two people who spend a lot of time together to bring each other down, stuck in a pattern of negativity and complaining. Studies also show that husbands experience much lower marital satisfaction when their wives are stressed. Couples who do not handle conflict well and continually reject or criticize each other will pass each other negative emotions more intensely.
How to Avoid Passing and Catching Negative Emotions in a Marriage
One easy way to avoid continually transmitting negative emotions in a marriage is to surround yourself with friends who have happy feelings and positive things to say about marriage and relationships. If you are around friends who often complain about their marriage, this can seep into your own relationship. It can also be helpful to mimic happy emotions purposefully, smiling often and speaking positively, even if you do not feel that way. Emotions will often follow outward actions. Be more thoughtful about the way you encounter your partner. For example, try to break habits of walking in the door from work and immediately beginning to complain. Instead make it a tradition to greet each other with compliments and discussion of the highlights of the day.
In your marriage, learn to recognize your partner’s emotions and what causes them. Being aware can help both of you to avoid catching and passing negative feelings, stopping the stages of emotional contagion before they progress. Completing an emotional scale or seeking professional help can be a helpful way to become more emotionally in tune.