Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

The Traits of Excellence

What You Absolutely Need to Know About Your Partner

... and why it predicts whether you'll be happy together so reliably.

Posted Jun 19, 2016

HTeam/Shutterstock
Source: HTeam/Shutterstock

Oh, the joys of a new relationship! Such happiness is dimmed only, perhaps, by the fear that can sometimes arise. When we enter into a new friendship, romance, or business partnership, we generally do so with excitement and hope. However, most of us have at some point also experienced disappointment or betrayal, and we prefer to not be let down again. As we seek to achieve the greatest potential in all of our relationships, how can we enhance our chances of success?

To answer this question, I culled wisdom from many prospective research studies, each of which followed large groups of people for decades, and which sought to identify the skills that enable both individuals and couples to maintain success in their work, health, and relationships across time. This exciting body of research has much to teach us. One of these studies followed 260 sophomores for 70 years. Another followed 700 children on the island of Kauai from birth until they age 45. A third followed more than 17,000 births, beginning in 1946, through the subjects’ lifetimes. There were many consistent findings—and among these is insight into one of the key ingredients found in all successful relationships.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the basic emotion of the brain is fear. This is the emotion of survival and we share it with all other mammals. Each species has its own automatic or built-in response to fear. When faced with a threat, the deer runs, the bird flies, the mouse burrows, and the lion charges. What do we humans do? If you have read my recent posts, you already know: When human beings are frightened, our brains want us to seek help and comfort from others; we reach out to one another for support. 

Let’s consider just some of the interesting research in this area: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the power of interactive support during labor and delivery. In a hospital in Guatemala, researchers followed 700 women who arrived in labor by themselves. Of these women, 350 were provided the medical treatment routinely offered by the hospital. The other 350 received support from a volunteer who provided conversation, hand-holding, and other non-medical forms of support throughout their labor—and this non-technical support cut labor time in half. The same study was conducted in a Houston hospital, with similarly dramatic results. Similar findings have been noted in the field of cardiac medicine: For example, the cardiologists who initially defined the “Type-A" personality found that patients who reported that they could reach out to others had dramatically lower cholesterol than those who could not. And cardiac patients who reported having no one to confide in were three times more likely to die prematurely than patients who felt they did have the support of others.

You might wonder what all this research has to do with the questions posed at the beginning of this blog. What is the one “key ingredient” found in those longitudinal studies? What skill do we need, and what do we most need to know about another person in order to predict and achieve success in our personal and professional relationships?

The answer is so simple and so profound that it may surprise you. The most important thing we want to know about a person—and what they want to know about us—before we trust one another is:

     What will this person do when she or he is afraid?

Knowing what a person does in response to fear is critical to the success of any relationship.

Consider romance: A loving relationship usually begins as a fun and exciting adventure. But at a certain point, relationships can become scary. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that people are human, and therefore not as consistent as we would like them to be. Maybe a loved one has come home grumpy and distant too many weeks in a row. At some point, we may not be totally convinced that the problem is work; or perhaps they’ve been out of town and promised to call, but later apologized for falling asleep early. The point is, human beings are not consistent—and this scares us.

A second reason that fear may arise is that the relationship—or the person—seems so good that we are afraid to lose it. We may think, “This person is wonderful!” But while we’re planning dates, vacations, and a future together, other thoughts creep in: “What if he changes his mind? What if she decides she doesn’t want to be with me and leaves?” When these thoughts arise, we must go to that person and say, “I got so scared today thinking of what life would be like if you went away.” Hopefully, because you’ve chosen so wisely on the basis of that person’s relationship to fear, she or he will hold you and say, “I know, I feel that way sometimes, too.”

These same principles apply to any important new or ongoing relationship, whether it's a friendship, romance, or business partnership. When in fear, each person needs to be able to reach out to the other individual for support, and to be able to respond with support when that person reaches out.

Discovering whether your prospective partner has this skill—or if you have it—is not always easy. Here are four questions to consider as the relationship unfolds:

  1. Does this person have close friends whom they seem to lean on for support and confide in?
  2. When I ask this person for support, are they compassionate and caring?
  3. When I ask about past mistakes, do they indicate that they turned to anyone for help?
  4. When I ask about past successes, do they share the credit with anyone else?

These questions provide a good foundation for learning about how you, or others, might respond during times of fear. As you continue to experience the joys of new relationships in all facets of your life, keep in mind that the most important thing we want to know before we trust a person is: What will they do when they're afraid?

Relationships are always most successful when all parties are able to ask for and provide support. In a later post, we will return to this idea as we bury the myth of the lone genius and explore the role of support in the creative process.