If you had to guess, what do you think would be the biggest factor in how couples rate the quality of their relationship? If you guessed ‘the number of disagreements or fights a couple has,’ that would be a pretty good guess, but it is incorrect. The most important predictor of relationship quality is whether each partner feels the other is emotionally responsive to them. By emotionally responsive, I mean: whether you feel your partner is attuned to, and cares about, what you are going through and is ‘there’ for you.

In the following article, “Hold Me Tight,” Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT), elaborates on why this type of responsiveness is so important, and how the lack responsiveness underlies the distress that couples experience.

One of the most important points that Johnson raises is that as human beings we all have a “wired in need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others.” This emotional contact, and the relationship bonds that result from such contact, are part of an evolutionary program that greatly enhanced survival rates in humans. If I become bonded to you, then your well-being is connected to my well-being and we will help each other in times of need. We ‘have each other’s backs,’ which makes both of us more secure.

In turn, if we feel our connection with a loved one is threatened, our brains are programmed to respond with a feeling of panic. Our sense of security is threatened and often we react impulsively and defensively. For example, a wife comes home and her husband is watching TV. He does not acknowledge her arrival. The wife feels angry, and she complains bitterly that he never pays attention to her. Underneath her anger is a longing to feel special and valued by her husband and a fear that this is not the case, but what she shows is anger and resentment. Unfortunately this makes it very difficult for the husband to respond to his wife’s needs. He feels criticized and like he has failed her, cueing his fear that she does not care about him, and he withdraws further. Maybe you can see how easily this dynamic can become self-reinforcing — the more critical the wife becomes, the more frustrated and desperate the husband feels and the more he withdraws, and the more the husband withdraws the more desperate the wife feels and the more critical she becomes. As Johnson writes, “Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all the distress, partners are desperate to know: Are you there for me? Do you need me? Do you rely on me?”

I hope you enjoy the article.