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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.
Are you curious where your relationship falls on the A.R.E. scale? Take this test and find out.
How Well Do You Score on the A.R.E. Scale?
This survey is taken from the book Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Johnson (2). It has been shortened and reformatted slightly for the purposes of this article.
Simply choose a True or False response to the following questions. Scoring (instructions below) will reveal where your relationship falls on the A.R.E. scale.
From your viewpoint, is your partner accessible to you?
I can get my partner’s attention easily. T/F
My partner shows that I come first for them. T/F
I can share my deepest feelings with them. They will listen. T/F
From your viewpoint, is your partner responsive to you?
If I need connection or comfort my partner will be there for me. T/F
My partner responds to my signals that I need them to give me space or come close. T/F
I find I can lean on my partner when I am anxious or unsure. T/F
Are you positively emotionally engaged with each other?
I feel very comfortable being close to and trusting my partner. T/F
I can confide in my partner about almost anything. T/F
I know that my partner cares about my joys, hurts and fears. T/F
To score: Simply add up the number of “True” responses that you checked. Each “True” response equals one point.
If you scored 6 or above, you A.R.E well on your way to an emotionally engaged relationship if you’re not already in one!
If you scored lower than 4, there is some work to do.
If you fell between 4-6, this is not so uncommon. So many of us did not grow up with the A.R.E. ingredients as a given in our relationships. As a result, we didn’t learn these essential relational skills.
Rest assured that learning how to apply A.R.E. in your relationship is possible and well worth it! In fact, this is the foundation of my relational work with clients. “A.R.E. you there?” is the fundamental question partners need answered. When the answer is no, whether it is conveyed directly or indirectly, it causes enormous distress. As Dr. Johnson puts it:
Isolation and the potential loss of loving connection is coded by the brain into primal panic response. The need for safe emotional connection to a few loved ones is wired in by millions of years of evolution. Distressed partners may use different words but they are always asking the same basic questions: “Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?” Love is the best survival mechanism there is, and to feel suddenly cut off from a partner, disconnected, is terrifying…. This longing for emotional connection with those nearest and dearest to us is the emotional priority, overshadowing even the drive for food or sex.
Now that you know the fundamental ingredients for a happy relationship here’s something to try: Start applying the A.R.E. factor to all your relationships and see if it doesn’t make a difference. I would love to hear your experience in testing this concept!
(1) EFT is the most researched couples therapy model, meeting the high standards for psychotherapy research set by the APA and similar organizations. There are 16 rigorous studies showing consistently high positive outcome in 8-20 sessions of EFT – with depressed and traumatized folks, too – and follow-up research shows that results are stable. For more information check out this link: http://www.iceeft.com/images/PDFs/EFTResearch.pdf
(2) Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson (2008) pp 57-58.