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Finding "The One" Is Overrated: Emotionships Matter More

Happiness is: Different folks for different emotional strokes.

One and done—that's how some people think about their relationships. Find "The One" and now you have mastered your relationship challenges. In your spouse you have the person who fulfills all of your wishes and needs, especially your emotional needs. You have the person who cheers you up when you are sad, calms you when you are anxious or angry, and cheers you on when things are going well. Popular songs romanticize the idea with lyrics such as, "you are my everything" and "I just want to be your everything."

Ever since I started writing about single life, I have questioned the wisdom of this. (Okay, so I made fun of it, calling people who are expected to be another person's everything SEEPIES, "Sex and Everything Else Partners.") I've often asked whether this sort of intensive coupling has its risks.

Now a series of soon-to-be-published studies shows the power of The Ones over The One. What is powerful, what seems to be linked to greater satisfaction with your life, is having different people to help you with different emotions. These are "emotionships" rather than relationships.

For example, when something good happens to me, there are some specific people I just love to turn to. I know they are going to be so happy for me and so effusive about saying so. When I want someone to share my righteous anger, though, I might look to someone else. When I want someone to hang around with when I'm anxious, I might think first of someone separate from the first two groups.

An emotionship is a new idea. So how did the researchers even know whether people really do have emotionships and whether they look to specific people when they have different kinds of emotional needs?

Their first study addressed that. An online sample of adults (a more diverse group than the usual college student participants) was first asked to nominate one friend who would be effective in helping them in these situations:

  1. Cheering them up when they are sad.
  2. Calming them down when they are anxious.
  3. Calming them down when they are angry.
  4. Sharing their happiness over good news.
  5. Amplifying their anger.

Later, researchers invited the same people to participate in a purportedly different study. If they agreed, the researchers first asked them to relive an emotional experience involving family members. They asked some to relive a sad experience, others an experience that made them anxious, and still others, one that made them angry. Then participants listed the names of five friends in the order they came to mind. For each, they said how much time they'd want to spend with that person if they had a free day; how close they felt to the person; and how satisfied they were with their relationship.

Here's what they found:

  • Participants could easily identify specific friends who were particularly good at helping them with regulating particular emotions.
  • The people they nominated really did seem to be emotion specialists in meaningful ways. Specifically:
    • Friends who are especially good at helping with a particular emotion are the friends who first come to mind when you are experiencing that emotion. Say, for example, you had just relived (in your mind) an experience with a family member that had made you sad. If you then listed five friends in the order they came to mind, the friend best at cheering you up when you are sad is especially likely to come to mind right away.
    • When you are experiencing a particular emotion, you feel closer to the person best at helping you with that emotion than you do to other friends. You also want to spend more time with that emotion specialist and are more satisfied with that relationship.

To have learned all that was fine, but among social scientists—and Americans more generally—happiness is the Holy Grail. Are you more satisfied with your life if you have a more diverse emotional profile than if you look to just one person to fulfill all of your needs for regulating your emotions?

In two studies, the authors found that the answer is yes:

"Taken together, our findings…suggest that having a diverse portfolio of emotionships are associated with greater well-being."

What do the researchers mean by "diverse emotional portfolio"?

Across a variety of emotions, you have a number of people in your life specializing in those emotions.

How did they figure out what people's emotional portfolios were like?

First, they asked participants in their studies to nominate friends who help them with specific emotions ("emotionships"). Above, I listed five examples from the authors' first study (e.g., someone who cheers you up when you are sad). For the other two studies, the authors also added two other kinds of emotion regulation—helping you feel less guilty and helping you feel less embarrassed. Participants could nominate up to four people they turn to for help with each of the seven specific emotion regulation tasks. They then provided some key information about those people, such as ratings of the quality of their relationship with each of them.

Knowing about closeness with those people was important. The authors' point is that it is important to have a close relationship partner or even a number of people to be close to. (In case you are new to this blog, when I say "close relationship partner," I never mean only romantic partners. Close friends and family members and anyone else you care about counts, too.) Their point is that, even beyond what you might get from having one or more people in your life that you are close to, it is good for your well-being to have different people who help you with different emotions.

The characteristics of emotional portfolios that the authors measured were:

  • Breadth: "The number of emotional domains in which participants listed at least one emotionship."
  • Depth of each domain: "The average number of emotionships participants had per emotional domain."
  • Specialization: "The proportion of individuals in participants' emotionship portfolio that served one emotion-regulation function."

How did they know who was happier or more satisfied with their lives?

They used the Satisfaction with Life Scale (by Diener and his colleagues). It includes items such as "The conditions of my life are excellent" and "I am satisfied with my life."

Bottom Line

Is variety the spice of life? It may be even more than that. If you and someone else have the same number of people who are close to you, and if you feel the same depth of closeness to those people, you are probably more satisfied with your life than the other person, if you have different people who help you with different emotions. Although we still need better causal evidence, the studies suggest that it is better to have someone you can turn to when you are anxious who is different from the person (or persons) you turn to when you are sad. The same goes when you want to share good news and feel confident that the person who hears it will be genuinely happy for you.

Did the authors spell out the implications of their findings for our society of matrimaniacs, hell-bent on finding "The One" and feeling proud in proclaiming that their spouse is their "everything"? It is still very important in academic psychology to tiptoe around the matrimaniacs, so all we got was this sentence at the end of the article:

"These results are especially important in light of recent societal trends suggesting that contemporary Americans are increasingly relying on their spouses (and decreasingly relying on their broader social networks) to fulfill their higher level needs (Finkel, Hui, Carswell, & Larson, 2014)."


Cheung, E. O., Gardner, W. L., & Anderson, J. F. (in press). Emotionships: Examining people's emotion-regulation relationships and their consequences for well-being. Social and Personality Science.

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