Since I'm a relationship researcher, a lot of my single friends ask me, “What should I look for in a partner?”
A complete answer to this question can take a while and is largely dependent on who is asking. Do you like to party? Your relationship will go more smoothly if you find someone who is similarly outgoing. Are you an animal-rights activist? You should probably find someone who doesn’t aspire to buying a fur coat.
But regardless of who is asking, there is one particular trait that is always crucial, something that I think everyone should look for in a partner: responsiveness.
A responsive partner is someone who makes you feel understood, validated, and cared for.1,2 Find a responsive partner and everything else can fall into place; it's like relationships on easy mode. But a lot of people have a hard time separating responsive partners from "nice" partners. Responsiveness has nothing to do with how willing someone is to wine-and-dine you or say flattering things to you. It's about how they react in more vulnerable, emotionally-charged moments. When their goals come into conflict with yours, how do they deal with the problem? Say you get a job offer a couple hours away from where you currently live. A responsive partner would first think about your perspective (“Congratulations!”) and then try to find a solution to the geographic challenge, whereas a less-responsive partner might suddenly turn self-absorbed jerk (“I like it here! We can't move and that’s that!”).
As you can imagine, it’s easier to work out relationship issues, big and small, with a partner who’s more responsive rather than less.
How about when you share something personal with your partner, maybe a setback you’ve encountered or a disappointing experience you’ve had? A responsive partner is likely to listen and try to understand (“That must have felt awful. Then what happened?”), while a less-responsive one might dismiss or downplay your experience and try to push the conversation back to “safer” territory (“Wow, that sucks. Hey, do you want to get Mexican food tonight?”).
It’s easier to feel closer and more connected to a responsive partner, because they’re easier to talk to and share meaningful experiences with.
To find someone who is responsive to your needs, here are 3 key behaviors to watch for:
Highly responsive partners pay attention while you share your perspective, and try to properly understand what you are communicating. Understanding partners often ask questions in an attempt to gather more information, so that they can better comprehend your point of view. They may also summarize and paraphrase your perspective, to ensure that their understanding is accurate (“So what you’re saying is…”).
Responsive partners make you feel that your perspectives are valid and respected. They may say things like, “I completely understand why you feel that way,” or, “I can see why that would be a frustrating experience.” Thus, responsive partners make you feel respected and supported. In the context of a disagreement, validation doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner gives in to you every time. But a responsive partner can make you feel like your views are valid even while they’re standing their ground—“I know my family can be a bit taxing, and I can see why you aren’t thrilled about an extended visit. But it is the holidays, so I think they would be hurt if we didn’t make time for them."
Finally, responsive partners will make it clear that they are concerned about your wellbeing, even in the context of a conflict. They often do this by expressing affection, or by communicating concern (“I hope I didn’t hurt you by saying that”). Responsive partners may also show their concern and support in more instrumental ways—for example, by bringing you soup when you’re sick. Of course, having already put effort into understanding your needs, responsive people are in a better position to care for you in a particularly sensitive, helpful way because they really do understand what you’re going through.
The situation does play a role in determining how responsive someone is. Someone under a lot of stress is not going to be nearly as responsive at that moment as they are when they’re not. Responsiveness can also vary from relationship to relationship—people, logically, tend to be more responsive toward partners when they are in more satisfying relationships, and when they feel that their partners are more responsive toward them in return. So part of having a responsive partner is being a responsive partner yourself!
All this said, there are definitely individual differences in how responsive a person typically is. Find someone who is skilled (and motivated) at responding sensitively to your feelings and your needs, and you are likely to have a much more rewarding relationship.
This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.
1. Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. In D. J. Mashek & A. P. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 201-225). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
2. Maisel, N. C., Gable, S. L., & Strachman, A. (2008). Responsive behaviors in good times and bad. Personal Relationships, 15, 317-338.