By Ondina N. Hatvany, MFT
What is the secret ingredient that makes a relationship thrive?
Dr. Sue Johnson, who founded EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), the most researched couples therapy model (1), has studied this question extensively. She has been able to distill the answer to this key question down to its bare essentials: What truly makes a relationship thrive and provides the key to long-lasting love is emotional responsiveness. What emotional responsiveness is and how it works is outlined by the acronym A.R.E.
(Note: The principles of A.R.E. can also be applied with equal effectiveness to familial relationships and friendships; however, in this article I will be addressing the romantic relationship only. For the purposes of simplicity, I will be referring to a romantic relationship with a single partner, which is not intended to exclude those in poly or open relationships.)
So What Is A.R.E.?
A = Accessibility
Can I reach you? In this day of cell phones, emails, texting and social media, we are all accessible all the time, at least in theory. Ironically, these can also be the very things that disconnect us from each other and give others the message that something else is that much more important.
Just this week I had a couple in my office where one partner complained that, even at his birthday dinner, his partner felt compelled to respond to every text that bleeped through on her phone.
“Honestly!” he exclaimed. “Do I really matter to you?”
“It was just a text,” she protested.
“Yeah, one of many,” he muttered. “Couldn’t they wait? We have so little time together. Sometimes I need it to be just about us!”
As this couple’s exchange depicts, accessibility is more than just being in the same room together or engaging in the same activity together. It is about being open to one another and paying attention to one another.
R = Responsiveness
Responsiveness is about being able to rely on your partner to interact with you on an emotional level in both good situations and bad. So for instance, whether you fail that important job interview or succeed, your partner’s ability to tune into you emotionally is key. Do they care when you get that bad news and do they know how to soothe you? Equally important, if it’s good news, can they celebrate with you?
Neurologically, this level of connection and ability to respond is very calming to the nervous system. Biologically, we are primed for survival; so when we know we have someone looking out for us who is able to respond appropriately, it is very reassuring. It gives the message that we are not alone in the world, we are taken care of, we can relax and let down our guard.
E = Engagement
This word encompasses all those yummy feelings of knowing that your partner is attracted to you, values you, is absorbed by you and wants to be involved with you! It gives you the message that you are valued and that you matter.
Having someone engaged with you in this way is also very calming to the nervous system. Knowing you have someone by your side who is looking out for you means that on a biological level you are not alone, having to fight for your survival. This allows your more primitive neurological wiring to relax.
Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene works with individuals, couples, and families. She can help you work through create more connection and closeness in your relationships. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.