New research shows that emotional responsiveness is the key to longlasting love – and longer life!
My life’s work is all about helping others find love. For decades now, I’ve served as a relationship counselor to the lovelorn, the twice-shy, the cynical, and the desperate people hoping for a new chance at love. Science is intrigued by the process, our culture is obsessed, and businesses profit from our neverending search for that perfect partner. But what happens once you’ve snagged that wonderful man? How can you set the foundation for many happy years together?
As always, I like to keep tabs on the latest research that helps us understand each other better, and social scientists and psychologists are building a growing body of research that points to emotional responsiveness as the most important component to a lifetime of happy, healthy relationships – not just romantic relationships, but any close ties.
Dr. Susan Johnson, a clinical psychologist in Ottowa has studied thousands of couples in a quest to understand what love is and how some couples build successful long-lasting partnerships. She writes that love is, “The continual search for a basic, secure connection with someone else.” We all need that connection, starting with the early bond between a newborn and its mother, a bond that ensures the survival of the child. As we grow older, that evolves into the need for a secure bond with a partner. In fact, the lack of that emotional bond is traumatizing to humans, and one of our basic needs along with food and shelter.
When we embark on a relationship with someone – whether it is a romantic one or even a friendship, we tend to be very engaged and responsive at the beginning but over time, that attention may wane. But, according to Johnson, “The most important thing we’ve learned, the thing that totally stands out in all of the developmental psychology, social psychology and our lab’s work in the last 35 years is that the secret to loving relationships and to keeping them strong and vibrant over the years, to falling in love again and again, is emotional responsiveness.”
Johnson says that there are three main components to emotional responsiveness, Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement (ARE). Accessibility involves staying open to your partner and remaining accessible to them, even if you are afraid or don’t understand what they are going through. Responsiveness involves tuning in to your partner, and demonstrating to them that their emotions have an impact on you and returning their communication with a display of caring and comfort. Engagement is simply being emotionally present for your partner.
So how does this play out in our day-to-day relationship? What does it mean to be emotionally responsive? Quite simply, it means that when one person sends a cue that they are happy or distressed or anxious, the other person will respond to that cue with some kind of reciprocal emotional response such as joy, sympathy, anger, etc., on their partner’s behalf, and that they will then offer their partner some kind of caring response in turn. People need to know that the other person will be there for them with the appropriate response in good and bad times. Without that responsiveness, an emotional distance can creep into a marriage, and can be fatal to the relationship because couples lose that feeling of security.
But there are different types of emotional responses – there are the positive, reinforcing kinds that make people feel secure, but there are also the more problematic responses. One study conducted by Linda J Roberts and her team examined the relationship between what they called the fire and ice responses and marital satisfaction in a group of couples. They identified hostile responsiveness (fire) and three types of withdrawing responses (ice) – intimacy avoidance, conflict avoidance, and angry withdrawal. They found that the most significant predictor of the success (or lack thereof) of a marriage for women was the degree of hostile response from their man, and for men it was the degree to which their woman went into withdrawal.
What causes that hostility and withdrawal? As usual, there are as many answers to that question as there are couples, but there are some general patterns. We all have disagreements, but when the ammunition is criticism or rejection, our brains interpret that as a danger cue, and we tend to withdraw to protect ourselves. Sometimes one partner with be distressed, and the other partner will mistakenly think that they need space, when what they really needed was a simple emotional response. It is important for couples to learn how to talk about their feelings in a way that brings their partner closer instead of pushing them further away.
Sex is another big reason for that emotional distance when one partner wants more or less sex than the other. If, for example, the wife doesn’t want sex as much as her husband, she may begin withdrawing to avoid those moments that may initiate sex, and in time, her partner will begin withdrawing from the rejections causing a subtle but widening gulf to open up between them. Frank discussions about each other’s sexual needs leading to deeper understanding and perhaps compromise can avoid this danger to their relationship.
Surprisingly, scientists found that a key area for building and maintaining that responsiveness was the routine sharing of the events of the day. Couples who took the time to discuss their day with their partners accompanied by appropriate emotional responses were building a much stronger foundation for those times when conflict does arise. So when he’s telling you about what happened on the jobsite, be happy for him when he reaches a goal and likewise, if he had a hard day, be sympathetic. You get the idea. Sharing those emotional moments is key. Then, when you do have a real conflict, you will be in the habit of understanding how to respond to each other in a good way, and you will be more likely to be able to weather the storm and make it to safety together.
Not surprisingly, research has shown that balanced emotional responsiveness is also important, so if one partner is consistently much more responsive than the other to those emotional cues, it can be a recipe for that dreaded withdrawal on the part of one or both of the partners.
So as you go about your day with your mate, pay attention, listen, and give them an appropriate and genuine emotional response to whatever they are going through. In turn, you should expect the same level of support from your partner. When you sense that you may be withdrawing, for whatever reason, find a way to discuss the reasons before you get too far away. Don’t be afraid to visit a marriage counselor if you need some help working it through. But most importantly, be there for each other emotionally, and you will be rewarded with a long and happy relationship.
John M. Gottman, Emotional Responsiveness in Marital Conversations, Journal of Communication, Volume 32, Issue 3, September 1982, Pages 108–120, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1982.tb02504.x
Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Little, Brown, Spark, 2008.
Linda J Roberts, Fire and Ice in Marital Communication: Hostile and Distancing Behaviors as Predictors of Marital Distress, Journal of Marriage and Family, Volume 62, Issue 3, March 2004, pp. 693-707.