Women may long have suspected it to be the case, but large-scale research by Griffith University and the University of Queensland has found women are more empathetic toward their partners than men.

Dr Cindy Mervin from Griffith Health Institute’s Centre for Applied Health Economics and Professor Paul Frijters from the University of Queensland found that when partners were ill or experienced the death of a friend, women were noticeably affected, yet men were not significantly affected by the negative events in their partner’s life.

Female partner’s levels of empathy could be measured as comparable (24%) to the event happening directly to themselves, whereas men’s emotional lives were not linked to the experiences of their partner.

“It is not that men are unemotional or uncaring, since they are quite strongly affected by what happens to themselves, but they simply are not very emotional when it comes to the feelings of their partner,” said Dr Mervin.

“It is possible that men are probably more affected by their own roles and image as partners, than by the actual feelings of their partner,” said Professor Frijters.

“This research found there is a multiplier or spillover effect on events happening to one person from the pain or joy caused to others. Negative and positive shocks affect other people in the family and probably also in the neighbourhood,” said Dr Mervin.

The researchers used data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study to analyse how the mental health of individuals changed when something happened to their partner. HILDA is a national study of over 20,000 people across Australia.

“The study also found parents were more affected by negative shocks happening to their partner than non-parents, owing to the entwined interests of the partner and the family,” Professor Frijters said.

Partners can affect each other’s mental health via many routes. If a partner is experiencing mental distress, this might not merely have a direct empathic effect on others, it may also reduce how much time they spend on household chores, reduce contact with children or other family members and thus leave more to do for others.