When it comes to our relationships, it is just as important to gain insight into our own emotional reactions and tendencies as it is to gain insight into our partner’s.
We are each born with personality propensities and a host of varied emotional reactions. When frustrated or angered we may run away and hide, lash out, cry, or do all of the above. When happy we may feel excited and joyful on the inside, yet appear calm and relaxed on the outside. Some people are like my wife, often bouncing around like the fictional character, Tigger, in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne. Her natural tendency when hearing good or exciting news is to squeal and bounce in happiness, which is probably why so many friends love sharing their good news with her—she celebrates with them as if it was personally happening to her.
As individuals we each differ in our emotional reactions and personalities. Some of us like to be thrilled, or are more outgoing and expressive, while others are reserved and prefer to be quiet and orderly. Others are more like Piglet—timid, a little uptight, less comfortable with change, but conscientious and kindhearted.
While many of our reactions and tendencies are also shaped by early life experiences and interactions with family, each of us value feeling safe, secure and happy. Generally, we all desire affection, companionship, and conversation. No one likes feeling unloved, unvalued, disrespected, judged, or inadequate. And yet, our emotions and reactions differ between us, often leaving us feeling vulnerable or exposed. They can surprise us or overwhelm us, and like Eeyore, leave us a little gloomy, uncertain or even pessimistic.
The key for successful, healthy relationships is found in learning and understanding our own reactions, and in understanding and accepting those of our partner. It is just as important that we gain insight into our own emotional reactions and tendencies as it is to gain insight into our partner’s unique style and reactions. Such awareness increases our emotional and relational intelligence.
When our children were born I was overjoyed and beyond happy, but you may not have known that from my outside reaction. For those first few hours and days I experienced strong emotions—happiness, gratitude, pride and pleasure—yet I did not shout or cry or rush around excitedly as some new dads might. And this reaction did NOT surprise my wife because she knew this was normal for me. Instead of feeling disappointed or confused by my supposed lack of emotional reactions, she accurately read the joy and happiness that was present in me. This she learned in watching and knowing me, and understanding how I reacted in other similar situations.
In general, our emotions and reactions should not be judged as good or bad, moral or immoral, but rather as information. Such insights can be very valuable. Even when we find another person’s reactions to be completely different from our own, such information can be used to actually strengthen our relationship.
For example, some of our friends have emotional reactions and tendencies a little different from my wife and me. He is very cognitive and cerebral, and she is much more of a feeler and an expresser of her emotions. He is great at giving perspective to his wife during times when she may be feeling emotionally overwhelmed, and he frequently asks for her insights and opinions when dealing with tense or distressing situations that are emotionally confusing for him. His seeking her perspective makes her feel valuable and understood, and he feels the same when she seeks out his advice and insights.
The key to intimacy is using this insight into oneself and others to experience empathy, thus leading to deeper connections. To connect or bond at an emotional level is the key to relationship health and satisfaction, and is the fabric binding individuals to each other. The best marriages are those in which spouses experience a deep sense of emotional connection, informing and enhancing each spouse’s emotional reality. Relationships suffer (and divorces more likely) when this bond or connection is threatened or even absent.
Relationship safety is the confidence that we can be emotionally vulnerable and still find acceptance, understanding and support. The biggest danger occurs when we feel misunderstood, or judged or unsafe. When this happens, our levels of fear and anxiety increase, and these reactions in turn increase our spouse’s levels of fears and insecurities. The spouse then also reflexively reacts with their own set of coping strategies, which in turn inspires more feelings of insecurity in their spouse. Conflict and distress in relationship is driven by this cycle of emotional reactivity.
When spouses begin to understand some of their own processes of emotional reactivity in the relationship, the new insights propel them toward taking greater responsibility for their processes, resulting in healthier self-awareness and hopefully change.
This is what we call emotional, relationship intelligence—when we gain insight into our own and the each other’s emotional reactions and tendencies, softening our reaction to them, and using these insights to experience empathy and compassion for one another. It involves being merciful and compassionate (Luke 10:25-32; Micah 6:8), other focused (Philippians 2:3-4) and self-aware (Psalm 139). And it means we are quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19), kindhearted (Ephesians 4:32), softening any hurtful responses (Proverbs 15:1; 16:24).
So whether you are a Tigger, an Eeyore or a Piglet, it is important to remember that such reactions are neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad. They instead are valuable insights that can help strengthen our relationships and our relationship IQ. Smart, healthy relationships flourish when we seek to understand and empathize with one another, and when we rely on such differences to help us make better sense of our emotional worlds.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.