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How Deeply Connected Do You Feel to Your Partner?

New research on tapping into implicit partner evaluations.

Key points

  • Romantic partners may find it difficult to put their deepest feelings into words, or they may not try to at all.
  • New research on couples shows that these deep feelings can resist even day-to-day variations in how well you and your partner get along.
  • Comparing your deepest feelings with those your partner holds toward you may be an important and useful relationship exercise.

When you think about the way you feel about your partner, how well can you put those feelings into words? Do you just have an inner sense that pulls you toward the person you love for reasons you can’t articulate? Perhaps you’re out and about, running some errands while your partner stays home and catches up on chores.

You’re fine with spending time apart, even if it’s on a weekend, because you know they’ll be there when you get back. This knowledge sits there like bedrock in your mind, allowing you to feel safe and secure in the solidity of your relationship. Nothing in the world could convince you to get on the road and leave, and you know that your partner feels just the same way that you do.

According to newly published research by Dickinson College’s Grace Larson and colleagues (2022), that deep-down feeling of connection you have to your partner technically is an “automatic affective reaction” that ultimately predicts “highly consequential relationship outcomes” (p. 2511). You may not be able to put this automatic reaction into words, but when that feeling exists (and it’s positive), it can propel you into a long and satisfactory future with your partner.

The Difference Between What You Say and What You Feel

Let’s say that when you return home from your errands, the first thing you’d like to do is give your partner a big hug and say how much you love them. But you’re worried that this might seem silly, given that you were only gone for, at most, a couple of hours. Instead, you yell out a brief greeting, put away your purchases, and maybe stop for a hasty peck on the cheek. Why, you wonder, does it seem odd to be any more demonstrative? And if you don’t, is this bad for your relationship?

The Dickinson College authors asked some of the same questions in their research, wondering whether day-to-day fluctuations in implicit partner evaluations (IPEs) somehow differ from explicit partner evaluations (EPEs) in predicting outcomes involving relationship quality assessments. Yet, they noted that measures of relationship quality may not be all that good at getting to the IPEs, given that these measures rely on self-report.

As Larson and her colleagues noted, “romantic relationships are a domain in which individuals hold especially strong perceptual biases, which may make them unwilling or unable to acknowledge what they spontaneously think and feel toward their partner” (p. 2512). Turning what people feel into what they say, then, presents a challenge not only in everyday experiences but also in labs where researchers attempt to understand the dynamics of romantic attachments.

Tapping Into Your Own Implicit Partner Perceptions

Larson and her fellow researchers sought to understand a specific type of IPE vs. EPE, namely, the way that an IPE “updates” or shifts as your partner’s behavior fluctuates over time. In ordinary, non-intimate interactions, you’re engaging in this process all the time, even though you might not realize it. For example, a friend introduces you to their neighbor, which triggers the social cognitive process of impression formation.

Let’s say the impression is highly positive. Then something happens that updates that impression, such as the individual seems just a little bit too attention-getting. With a long-term romantic partner, it’s less likely that your IPE will turn on a dime like this, though it could if your partner all of a sudden behaves uncharacteristically mean (a point that will be examined later). In general, all other things being equal, IPEs of close romantic partners should be more resistant to updating than are IPEs of those whom you don’t know very well.

To test the updating process of IPEs among intimate partners turns out to be a challenging process. You can’t ask people to rate their partners, because then your measure would be an EPE. The standard way that researchers tap into implicit feelings about a given target is to use a timed measure of instantaneous associations to that target’s photo with both positive and negative words.

If you take longer to react to the combination of your partner and “bad” than to your partner and “good,” it means that your implicit perception of your partner is highly positive. This was the essence of the method that Larson used with her international team of collaborators, applying it to two different samples of Dutch adults along with explicit partner rating methods.

The key test of the IPE-EPE distinction came in the second study, in which Larsen et al. asked participants to keep a two-week diary of all their interactions with their partner, rating the degree to which they experienced positive relationship experiences (e.g., goal support) and negative ones (e.g., jealousy). The researchers also followed up by asking participants about their current EPEs, assuming that the couples remained together during that time.

Taken as a whole, the findings supported the prediction that IPEs would be less sensitive to daily fluctuations in relationship experiences than EPEs. However, over the course of time, the researchers did observe somewhat of a collective effect of EPEs on IPEs, but only in a gradual fashion. The exception to this trend involved, quite understandably, the very negative experience of a relationship breakup. In the case of these “highly diagnostic experiences,” positive IPEs came crashing down.

In conclusion, the authors noted that, “Explicit evaluations…mirror day-to-day changes in the substance of a person’s interactions with their significant other,” but implicit evaluations shift “more slowly, perhaps in response to the gradual accumulation of relationship experiences.”

As this was only a two-week test of the IPE-EPE distinction, you can only imagine that over a longer period, and with longer-term relationship partners, those IPEs would become more and more resistant to day-to-day fluctuations, again, barring anything dramatic.

Getting to Know Your Own IPEs

Clearly, you can’t exactly conduct your own lab-based implicit association measure with your partner, or at least not until such technology may someday be invented. Instead, you’re left with reliance on the feelings that you can put into words, which the Larsen et al. study shows are not the same measures.

To tap into those deeper associations, you can instead try your own mental experiment. Clearing your mind of anything that’s happened recently, come up with your own free association list of words or even feeling states that pop into your head in connection to your partner. Do they form a network around a sense of security, happiness, fun, or even just plain “good”? These may be the underlying connections that are rumbling around inside of you as you go about those daily errands.

Conversely, if inner associations are predictive of later relationship distress, as the study’s authors propose, when your own form a nexus around unpleasant qualities and sensations, this could color your daily interactions and perhaps the course of your relationship in less than a sunny glow.

If you feel you’ve been able to tap into these deeper associations with your partner and you'd like to share them, you could then go one step further and ask your partner to do the same. Comparing notes could provide a valuable relationship exercise to help each of you understand the way these feelings drive your daily experiences.

To sum up, daily vacillations in relationship quality clearly reflect a variety of forces, some not even within your control. Stripping away the specifics of those daily variations and getting to the underlying emotions that persist over time can provide a new and more profound basis for relationship fulfillment.

Facebook image: Liderina/Shutterstock

References

Larson, G. M., Faure, R., Righetti, F., & Hofmann, W. (2022). How do implicit and explicit partner evaluations update in daily life? Evidence from the lab and the field. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(10), 2511–2533. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001199.

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