The Power of Prime

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Is Emotional Openness the Key to Healthy Relationships?

Being emotionally vulnerable is the starting point for great relationships.

Have you ever been at a social event, whether a hosted dinner, picnic, party, what-have-you, and you meet someone who is obviously intelligent, well educated, and successful? You fully expect an interesting conversation, yet it stumbles from the start. The conversation stays at a superficial level and, within a short time, you are actually struggling to think of even the most mundane things to say to them. You quickly find an excuse to break off the conversation—“I’m going to freshen up my drink. Nice talking to you”—and put the encounter out of its misery.

Or, have you ever been at a social event and you meet someone who is as capable as the above person, yet something is different. Within minutes, ideas are flowing in both directions unfiltered and unabated. There is a comfort and ease that is surprising given the short duration of the conversation. Before you know it, both of you are engaging in serious self-disclosure and you feel as if you’ve known that person for years.

What explains this vastly different social experience? I have come to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with intellect, education, status, or shared values or experience. Instead, I believe it is due to the emotional openness of the two parties involved.

What do I mean by emotional openness? It is really about the ability to share your emotional life with others. Emotional openness, of course, comes with risks that involve making yourself vulnerable and not knowing whether this emotional exposure will be accepted and reciprocated or rejected and deflected. Perhaps the ultimate example of taking the risk of emotional openness is telling someone you love them.

It isn’t a conscious decision whether to take the emotional plunge or not. Rather, it is a spontaneous feeling thing. For some deep and unclear reason, perhaps pheromones, chemistry, vibe, or knowing someone from a previous life (I’m being facetious about that last one), the emotional flood gates open up and a connection is made in both directions. Or, the gates to the castle clang shut.

Referring back to two examples. In the first case, I feel like there is a wall or a suit of armor that is preventing me from reaching the person emotionally. Or, I feel nothing from them, so I don’t let them feel anything from me. In the second case, I feel as if there is this open space between us that allows emotions to flow freely back and forth.

What causes an immediate and strong connection between two people? I have a few theories. First, both people are just emotionally open; that’s simply the way they operate. So, when they meet someone with a similar emotional style, connection is inevitable and quick. Second, I have also found that I tend to connect with people with whom I share values and interests. For example, I generally connect more deeply with people who work in the helping professions or the non-profit world than those from the financial industry. And I definitely feel more of an affinity for those with similar political and religious views as I have. Third, mutual interests are a nexus through which I often connect. For instance, I do a lot of skiing, running, and bicycling and have made several good friends through these common interests. Not surprisingly, some of our best and open conversations occur while engaging in these sports.

A question I have asked myself, but still haven’t come up with a definitive answer is this: Is the other person just closed emotionally in general or is there just a lack of emotional chemistry between the two of us? Perhaps the other person is emotionally open with others, just not me. I tend to lean toward the former explanation because I’m pretty good at feeling whether people are emotionally available. In addition, I often see people with others and in different situations that confirm my impressions.

At the same time, I want to be fair and not assume that just because someone is emotionally closed with me that they are that way with everyone. The reality is that people have different emotional “wiring”, different levels of comfort with vulnerability, different timing for being emotionally open, and different ways they express their emotions. It may be that my style, which tends to be immediate, direct, and unfiltered, doesn’t jibe well with someone else’s that may be more cautious or require more time and trust.

I also wonder how predictive that initial emotional interaction is of long-term relationships. Does an immediate connection always mean a lasting connection? And does an emotionally awkward first meeting portend long-term doom for a relationship? It’s difficult to say because you’re more likely to want to see someone again after an emotionally rewarding experience and less motivated to want to build on an emotionally unsatisfying first encounter.

Different people also have different expectations when it comes to initial meetings. I’m going to guess that most people don’t set the bar very high in terms of emotional content when they first meet people, so don’t expect emotional fireworks (or even a few sparks).

I, for one, tend to place considerable weight on that original impression and assume that what I see (and feel) emotionally is what I will get in the future. I then determine from that first interaction whether I want to see that person again.

There are trade-offs with both approaches. With the lower bar, you’re less likely to miss out on someone who just takes time to warm up to you. The downside is the opportunity costs you incur when you could be spending time with others whom you will develop meaningful relationships.

With the higher bar, you don’t waste time with people with whom you will never have a meaningful relationship. The risk is that you may lose out on what might have turned out to be a great friend or even the person you marry.

Finally, one area I struggle with is what to do in those situations in which there is an emotional disconnect between me and someone I meet. Should I continue to engage with the other person because it is the polite thing to do? Or, do I “check out” because time is a nonrenewable resource and I’m wasting it interacting with people with whom I feel no rapport, even if my withdrawal may be interpreted as judgmental, snobbish, or just plain rude? The socially acceptable thing would probably be to stick with it until there is a well-mannered way to exit the interaction. My impulse is to bail as quickly as possible regardless of how I am perceived. What would you do?

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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