- The feeling of being in sync with a partner may seem to be an ideal way to promote satisfaction.
- New research shows that there may be an unexpected downside to being too tuned in to your partner’s moods.
- By regulating your feelings of connection to your partner, it may be possible to use those linkages in increasingly beneficial ways.
A sense of connection with your relationship partner can occur at many levels. You may both laugh at the same comment or event, giving each of you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. Conversely, you may both become equally angered in the midst of an argument, making it even more unpleasant than it needed to be.
Where do you believe these feelings of connection come from? It would make sense that they have some physiological underpinning. Indeed, according to a new study by University of Texas psychologist Adela Timmons and colleagues (2023), this “linkage,” as they call it, is accounted for by a variety of biological indicators.
Although complex in its root causes, physiological linkages can actually show up quite readily in skin conductance, a reflection of an individual’s overall levels of arousal. If a couple is in sync, then their skin conductance (electrodermal activity, or EDA) should show similar variations across the course of their interactions with each other. In turn, when these variations have a high degree of similarity within a couple, the question is whether a relationship benefits or not.
What Does It Mean to Be in Sync With a Partner?
Before finding out whether the U. Texas researchers were able to support their hypothesis, it’s worthwhile to consider what it means to have a similar EDA as your partner. It’s possible that each of you “react sensitively to their partners’ emotional states, easily take others’ perspectives, and demonstrate high levels of empathy toward others.” However, you could also feed off negative reactions that your partner has during one of those arguments, which would “amplify negative affect and contribute to escalation of conflict." Some prior research in which couples were placed in a lab and told to argue showed that such high covariation in your physiological responses could be a sign of a relationship in trouble.
Because lab studies don’t take into account the natural context in which couples navigate their emotional landscapes, Timmons and her colleagues asked their 109 dating couples (average age 23 years old) to wear a wireless biosensor on their wrists during the course of a day. On an hourly basis, the couples allowed themselves to be pinged with a questionnaire that asked them to report on what activities they were engaged in at the time. They rated their accompanying emotions on scales of annoyance/irritation, and closeness/connection, as well as rating their personal mood states (stress, happiness, sadness, anxiety, and anger). A rating of relationship satisfaction overall completed the set of assessments the Austin researchers collected on their participants.
The Daily Ebbs and Flows of Connection
In tracking the psychological counterparts of hourly variations in EDAs, Timmons and her collaborators were able to establish that couples indeed varied together over the course of the day’s measures. More importantly, the extent to which their bodies responded similarly was associated with feelings of greater connection and closeness. The effect didn’t go in the opposite direction, moreover, because when they were annoyed they showed no particular physiological covariation in EDA’s.
The research team arrived at these findings after taking into account many alternate factors, such as whether partners were alone with each other, drank alcohol or caffeine or consumed other drugs, and whether they communicated in person or by phone. Other obvious potential factors also were statistically ruled out, including sex, age, and levels of education.
Looking at those other possible contributors to the EDA-closeness relationship, it appeared that when members of a couple were in a bad mood, their physiological linkage increased. The opposite occurred when they were happy. As the authors concluded, “These results suggest that negative emotional states may be more readily linked to increased linkage than positive mood states."
Turning to the main research question, would being in sync be good or bad for a relationship? The findings showed that, as the authors predicted, couples with lower relationship satisfaction actually showed fewer linkages than those who were content with each other. These findings raise the possibility that whether being in sync with your partner is a good or bad thing may depend on which emotions are aroused at any given moment. In a poorly functioning couple, both partners may be on the lookout for any negative cues, making them more sensitive to each other’s possible feelings of discontent.
How to Unlink a Negative Connection With a Partner
The counter-intuitive idea that being in sync with your partner could have negative implications for your relationship may be one that you’re having trouble wrestling with. Shouldn’t you try to be as in tune with your partner as possible? And if your relationship is one that needs help, is it better to disconnect?
Because the authors couldn’t determine whether poor relationship satisfaction leads to higher EDA linkages or vice versa, the answer to these questions cannot definitively be provided based on this study. However, if the notion resonates with you that you’d rather not pick up on your partner’s negative behaviors, moods, or apparent feelings toward you, then you may be able to understand where being in sync can have its limits.
It may be possible, too, that knowing these findings could help you in other ways. When you feel yourself starting to pick up on your partner’s negative reactions to a situation, it may be beneficial to stop yourself from traveling down that same physiological highway. As Timmons et al. suggest, you could note the feelings that you’re picking up on and use these to try to guide the conversation toward “sensitivity to each other’s emotions and perspectives." Just don’t get caught in them.
To sum up, as couples grow and change over the course of their relationship, their bodies may also respond in kind. Knowing how to promote connectivity, both in positive and negative situations, can help you and your partner develop in increasingly fulfilling ways.
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Timmons, A. C., Han, S. C., Chaspari, T., Kim, Y., Narayanan, S., Duong, J. B., Simo Fiallo, N., & Margolin, G. (2023, January 16). Relationship Satisfaction, Feelings of Closeness and Annoyance, and Linkage in Electrodermal Activity. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0001201