4 Simple Ways to Test Your Relationship’s Emotional Health

New research looks at the link between four behaviors and marital satisfaction.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

In close relationships people may, from time to time, wish they could tell exactly how their partners feel about them. Perhaps you and your partner get along reasonably well, but you still wonder whether the relationship is really on an even keel or not. Is there a simple way for you to take your partner’s emotional temperature toward you without having to ask? And, if so, could you use such a quick read-out on a regular basis to track the course of your relationship’s health?

Relationship researchers consider it the holy grail of their work to be able to predict which couples will maintain the bonds of intimacy and, hence, levels of satisfaction with their partners. Studies showing the contributors to high-functioning relationships have tended to focus on the absence of problems as the most important factors. The lucky couples in these relationships avoid letting disputes devolve into such negative behaviors as being demanding, stubborn, and defensive or, just as bad, avoiding conflict altogether. Yet, if you’re an incurable romantic, you must believe that it takes more for a relationship to last than just a negotiated peace agreement between adversaries.

Indeed, according to Marcela Otero and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley (2020), “the absence of negative interaction patterns does not imply the presence of positive ones.” Reflecting further on this point, Otero et al. note that “positive interchanges have been shown to buffer against the adverse effects of negative affect, build high-quality relationships, or both” (pp. 1225-26). In other words, you may not always feel that great about your partner in the moment, but if there are enough countervailing positive feelings, that momentary unhappiness will likely go away on its own.

What would those positive feelings be like? Thinking about your own closest relationships, what is it that keeps you feeling good about your partner? Do you tend to feel emotionally connected, believe that your partner cares about you (and vice versa), and that you can read each other’s signals with almost perfect accuracy? Do you, as the expression goes, “finish each other’s sentences”? Could your partner read the slump of your shoulders as a sign that you had a bad day?

Otero et al. propose that so-called “positive resonance” between partners involves exactly this type of emotional reciprocity. Using the “broaden-and-build” model of emotions, the Berkeley authors maintain that positive emotions can accumulate over time, strengthening the bonds of partners in an upwardly spiraling fashion.

To test the value of positive resonance in relationship satisfaction, Otero and her coauthors used existing data on a sample of married couples who participated in a study of relationships carried out in 1989-90. The 148 dyads included 78 couples averaging 44 years old and another 65 couples in their early 60s. All were brought into the laboratory where they engaged in a 15-minute video-recorded conversation as they talked about an area of disagreement between them. To measure relationship satisfaction, the research team used two standard marital quality instruments.

Taking advantage of newer theories of emotions in relationships, the Berkeley researchers in 2020 reanalyzed the video recordings with a scale designed to assess the positivity resonance between the two partners. Unlike behavioral measures that track on a minute-to-minute basis how one partner seems to be feeling, the resonance score captures what the authors call “interpersonal connectedness.” The authors proposed that a sense of connectedness would reflect a “holistic synthesis” of shared positive affect, mutual care and concern, and synchrony of nonverbal behavior. In other words, an individual rating might show the number of times one of the members smiled but this joint rating would indicate when the partners both seemed to be reacting to a situation with humor.

To illustrate how this difference might play out in real life, consider the following hypothetical situation. You’ve been talking about an area where you and your partner disagree, such as the amount of time you spend on the phone with your sister. Your partner thinks you talk too long about nothing at all, but you enjoy comparing your views of TV shows and movies with her on an almost daily basis. Now imagine you’ve been brought into a researcher’s lab to talk about this area of contention. Although you and your partner don’t see eye to eye, both of you still are able to laugh about how silly some of those sisterly chats can get to be.

The measures used by the researchers to quantify positive resonance amounted to a series of four behavioral indicators. Now ask yourself which of these would apply to the latest disagreement with your partner, thinking not about your partner alone, but about the interaction between the two of you:

  1. Showing humor at the same time.
  2. Tilting your heads at the same time.
  3. Using terms of endearment.
  4. Talking in affectionate tones of voice.

Each of these alone would count as what the authors refer to as “Level 1” positivity resonance. To up your score to “Level 2,” you would not just smile but would laugh out loud, mirror each other’s head movements at least two times, talk affectionately for at least 15 seconds, and use terms of endearment two times or more.

Comparing the positivity resonance scores of each couple with their individually based behavior ratings, the authors found that, as they predicted, those partners with more Level 2 positivity resonance scores had higher scores on the marital satisfaction measures. In other words, behavioral ratings of each member of the couple, or the two added up, weren’t as effective in predicting relationship quality as that “holistic” assessment of the couple’s interactions. A key factor in relationship satisfaction, according to this model, is that you and your partner are “in sync.”

To sum up, as the authors conclude, over time, “repeated episodes of positivity resonance may promote feelings of oneness, other-orientation, perspective taking, and interpersonal togetherness” (p. 1231). By testing your own frequency of positivity resonance, your relationship can be that much more fulfilling as the years go by.

References

Otero, M. C., Wells, J. L., Chen, K.-H., Brown, C. L., Connelly, D. E., Levenson, R. W., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2020). Behavioral indices of positivity resonance associated with long-term marital satisfaction. Emotion, 20(7), 1225–1233. doi:10.1037/emo0000634.supp (Supplemental)