EQ and Romantic Relationships
Introduction to this page
Feelings, relationships, information and voluntary change
Empathy, caring, importance, defensiveness and responsibility
At the beginning of a relationship
Throughout the relationship
An example of low EQ
Notes on letting go
Notes from an article on "Constructive Arguing"
Introduction to this page
Perhaps the best test of one's EQ is a romantic relationship. Cognitive intelligence alone is not enough. In fact, I believe the combination of high IQ and low EQ is deadly to a relationship. (Explanation)
It is not yet known how helpful the scientific definition of emotional intelligence is with respect to romantic relationships. As far as I know there are no studies yet which measure the relationship between the scores on the MEIS or the MSCEIT tests (see EI tests) and divorce or marital or sexual bliss, for example. We don't know if a high score on one of these tests will predict success in a lasting romance. One would certainly expect EI to predict success in a relationship, and later I am sure we will see reports of divorce rates vs. EI scores, but for now, except where otherwise noted, I will be referring only to EQ as I define it more informally, rather than to EI as defined by John Mayer and his colleagues. (See EQ vs EI definitions)
I will simply say that it is my very strong belief that EQ is critical to the success of a relationship. Here are some thoughts, suggestions, guidelines, etc. then which come from a combination of personal experiences and extensive reading on relationships. I will add that it is not easy to change life-long habits and to train yourself to react in more emotionally intelligent ways. We see very few, if any, models of the kinds of behavior I am proposing on this page. If you watch American TV for example, as much of the world does, you will see almost none of any of this. In fact, you will see just the opposite in many cases. But I believe you will find what I am proposing and explaining makes sense. Once you see it written down, perhaps it will give you some new understanding of what is happening in your current relationship or what has happened in past relationships. I believe such understanding is extremely helpful, if not essential, to making permanent changes.
Besides understanding I hope to offer you some new techniques, new ideas, new ways of behaving which you can try out and see how they work for you. You won't be able to do all of these instantly, but if you believe in the underlying concepts, and have an increased sense of understanding and awareness, then perhaps you can make a few changes now and a few more later. You might even want to come back and visit this page from time to time. I will also add that I have tried virtually everything on this page myself. Most of it was completely new to me, but I am finding that while I still revert back to my old habits at times, the new ways get easier with time and practice. And I consider myself living proof that one can make major changes in their lives.
Feelings, Relationships, Information and Voluntary Change
The more we value a relationship, the more we are interested in and care about our partner's feelings. When they say "I feel x" we are curious to know why they feel x. And when they feel sad or hurt or upset, we feel more empathy if we value them or the relationship more. (See note on empathy and defensiveness)
Also, the healthier we are, in other words, the fewer unmet
emotional needs (UEN's) we have, the more we are able to be
interested in our partner's feelings. If I am very needy, for
example, I am only thinking of, because I am feeling the pain of,
my own unmet emotional needs. It is unlikely I will be able to
feel much empathy for my partner when I am hurting myself, since
taking care of one's own pain is fundamental to the survival of
the species. In evolutionary terms, individual sacrifice seems to
make sense only in extreme situations, where life or death of
another person or the group is at stake.
When one person expresses his or her feelings, they provide information to another. William Glasser, in fact, says somewhat dramatically, that all we can do is provide information to another person. From there it is up to them. Thus, the more we value a person or a relationship, not only the more interested we are in their feelings, but the more likely we are to make changes voluntarily, without feel forced, or coerced.
Empathy, Caring, Importance, Defensiveness and Responsibility
We all want to feel cared about. We want someone to feel empathy for us when we are in pain. That pain may take the form of hurt, sadness, or "anger" (see discussion of why anger is a secondary feeling), but in all cases we want someone to care how we feel. This is an evolutionary survival need. It was critical to our survival that when we were injured, we were able to express ourselves, to get someone's attention who cared enough to go out of their way to help us. Before we had words, our emotions expressed themselves in moans, tones, facial expressions, body language, etc. The better we were at communicating our pain, and the more empathy we were able to get, the more likely we were to survive.
Also, the more important we are to someone the more likely they will care about how we feel. Thus we all want and need to feel important. If we meant nothing to the tribe that we were in, they might just decide to leave us behind at some point. But if we were important to the tribe for some reason or another, they would make an extra effort to help us.
When we are in pain though, it is a bad time to start trying to become important to someone and to get them to care about us. This is better done before we are in pain. Once we are in pain, we may quickly become bitter if we need their help or empathy and for some reason they are not giving it or showing it. If we then start to attack them, they will become defensive. Again, this is strictly an evolutionary survival response. The more we attack them, verbally, psychologically or otherwise, the more defensive they become. And, importantly, the less empathic they become. This was something I discovered by chance one day when I was being attacked for not caring, for not showing empathy. I realized later that day that feeling empathy and feeling defensive seem to be mutually exclusive. You simply cannot feel empathy when under attack. This apparently is due to the hierarchy of survival responses: we have evolved to protect and take care of ourselves first.
When you most need someone's empathy and caring then, it is probably counterproductive to attack them for not caring about you. It is probably not helpful to say things like "If I were important to you, you would....." or "You don't care about me!" You might be able to get the immediate behavior you want from the person, but you are unlikely to be generating sincere feelings of empathy. More likely you are generating feelings of guilt, which is not a healthy motivation for behavior. It is a common one, but not a healthy one. Those who learned to get their short term needs met this way are in effect using guilt to manipulate the other person. That person will feel resentful over time. And their self-esteem will suffer because they are not acting out of their own free will. They experience a loss of power, so there will be future power struggles in an attempt to reclaim it. Feelings of competition, superiority, inferiority, victory, defeat, punishment, judgement and general mutual resentment may be the result, all of which are toxic to a romantic relationship.
Part of high EQ, then, is expressing your feelings in a non-attacking way and being aware of the emotions you may be generating in the other person. This is a true test of your EQ. And in fact, it seems to require the use of all four branches of emotional intelligence as defined by Mayer et al. These four branches are:
1. the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express
emotions; identifying emotions in oneself and others
2. the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; using emotion in reasoning and problem solving.
3. the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge, and
4. the ability to manage emotions in yourself and in others; the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth
First, you must be able to accurately identify and express your own feelings. To do this you must be able to "access" them or in more common terms, you must be in touch with your feelings. When you are feeling hurt, upset, etc. your feelings definitely will generate thoughts on your part. But the key word is "facilitate." I take this to mean that your feelings help you think more clearly about what is happening. With high emotional intelligence, the thoughts you are generating are helping you solve the problem. If you have low emotional intelligence, your thoughts may do just the opposite. In other words, they may make things worse. (see cognitive distortions)
Also, if you are able to understand emotions and know what is likely to happen in your partner, you are less likely to attack when you need empathy and caring. Thus by using some self-regulation and choosing your words carefully and thoughtfully, you may indeed be growing emotionally and intellectually, while helping to get your needs met and strengthening the relationship bonds at the same time.
A simple example of this is to say "I feel hurt," rather than "You hurt me." Here is where we take a step beyond the academic definition of emotional intelligence and move to the more practical concept of EQ. You are now expressing your emotions with feeling words. You are not blaming or attacking your partner. You are simply providing information.
If you expect your partner to make you feel better, though, you still are not taking responsibility for your emotions, something fundamental to my definition of high EQ. Instead you are trying to change your partner, perhaps in a manipulative way. Perhaps you are trying to invoke feeling of guilt or responsibility in your partner when you say "I feel hurt." You might be doing this in your tone of voice.
As I see it, the more you blame your partner for your feelings and expect them to change or do something about them, or worse yet, the more you demand they do something, or threaten them if they don't, the lower your EQ. After you express your feelings it is up to them to voluntarily decide what to do with this information. (See above section on voluntary change)
When you express a feeling, it is wise to make a mental note of it, or perhaps write it in your journal. If you find you are experiencing the same feeling over and over again, I suggest you not blame your partner. Part of the value of clearly identifying your feelings, if not the primary value, is to help you decide when it is time for you to make a change. This change may take many forms, but the point is to take primary responsibility for taking care of your own feeling.
This is something I very rarely see in the world, and something I have trouble doing myself. Nearly all of my role models blamed others for their feelings. They then spent vast emotional and intellectual resources trying to get the others to change, through any number of tactics: guilt, coercion, bribery, punishment, reward, subtle manipulation, threats, intimidation, fear, etc. Not only was this what I saw in my immediate environment, but it is what I continue to see around the world on TV, in film, in literature, in schools, business and religion.
The ability to break away from this dysfunctional model, to take responsibility for managing one's own emotions, emotional health and happiness is an achievement of the highest degree of EQ, so high that it may even be called a sign of emotional enlightenment. When we reach this level of emotional growth, we are close to emotional self-sufficiency. We are able to meet more of our own emotional needs. When we do find that special person for whom we have passionate romantic feelings of love and desire, we are much, much more likely to bring happiness into the relationship rather than try to get happiness out of it.
At the Beginning of a Relationship
Use the 0-10 scale to find out the level of the feelings listed below. Then take appropriate action to move in the necessary direction and check back with your partner. Periodically check on these feelings.
Define your terms- for example, respect, support, listening, friendship.
Use discussions of your feelings to discover your values, beliefs, expectations and needs.
Discuss how you each believe love is shown.
Agree on a method for resolving conflicts.
Discuss the concept of punishment- for example, withholding communication, changing plans to hurt the other person. Find out if your partner uses punishment when they are hurt. Find out what your partner does when they don't get what they want. How they resolve problems. Find out whether they have bitterness from past relationships; how they felt with their parents.
Throughout the Relationship
Be sure you don't confuse loving someone with needing them. Need is based on insecurity and dependency. When you need someone, you believe you can't live without them. When you love someone, you can be happy alone and you can continue to love them even after you are no longer romantic partners.
When you feel bad for something you did, tell your partner immediately. Ask for forgiveness and/or offer restitution.
If your apology is not accepted, you must forgive yourself. You can only offer an apology, you can't force someone to accept it.
Take more responsibility for your own emotions.
Learn to explain your emotions without blaming your partner for them. Take responsibility for your own insecurities, defensiveness and unmet emotional needs.
Learn to manage your own negative emotions. The more you can do this, the more you will be available to help your partner.
Ask "what would help me feel better that I can do" rather than thinking in terms of what someone else could do.
Learn to identify the primary emotions when you feel "angry."
Learn how to tell your partner what you need from them.
Remember that sometimes, expressing your feelings triggers feelings of defensiveness from others. Sometimes they feel responsible, manipulated, blackmailed, or pressured, even if this was not your intent.
Thus it is necessary to assume responsibility and ask for help, rather than expect or demand your partner do anything to help you feel better.
And sometimes, although full disclosure is the ideal, perhaps it will be better to keep your feelings to yourself, or share them later on.
Become aware of your unmet emotional needs (UEN's) from your childhood.
Do not depend on your partner for your happiness.
Remember that happiness is something you bring into a relationship more than something you get out of it.
Learn to change your demands into preferences.1
Reduce the demands you place on your partner.
Learn to listen using the techniques of EQ based listening. In particular, listen for the emotions behind the words. This is very hard to do when you are feeling attacked, but that also may be when it is most important.
Keep in Mind:
In arguments, avoid exaggerating, bringing up the past, using someone's own words against them, trying to get them to agree with you. Instead just state feelings and wait. If they are ready to hear the explanations, they will ask why you feel that way. If they don't ask, they are in need and can't focus on your feelings. If they don't voluntarily ask why you feel the way you do, trying to force your explanation on them at that moment is probably counter productive. Perhaps flip a coin to see who goes first.
When your partner is upset, don't interrupt. Only speak to clarify and paraphrase. Or perhaps just make eye contact, and show that you are listening. Try to de-code what they are saying and identify their feelings. Try to focus on their unmet emotional needs at that moment and try to put your needs aside for the time being.
When you can't listen, it is best to admit it. Offer to listen at a later time. Take a short break until you stop feeling defensive or drained, for example.
When you feel discouraged or hopeless, list all the things which favor you.
Never assume how your partner feels, always ask.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
State your feelings in three word sentences. Then wait to see how the other person responds. Don't try to force your explanations on them.
To show respect to your partner: (a) respect their feelings (b) ask them how they would feel before making decisions.
Listen to your body and take a time-out when you feel intensely attacked, hostile, angry, etc.
If you are an intense person, quick thinking person, slow down. Especially in arguments.
Try to avoid using someone's own words against them. This is a particularly personal and hurtful form of attack.
Avoid people who take information you have given them and use it against you. (Though I generally don't like labels we might call this behavior "information abuse.")
Here is an example of some very low EQ, or what not to do.
I found it when going through my journal. I wrote it when I was just beginning to organize my thoughts on emotions, and about 6 months before I ever heard of the term "EQ." I thought I knew enough that I could teach a few things to others, but now I see how little I actually was putting into practice. I feel incredulous that I would write the words that are shown below. I wrote them about someone I needed in my life at that time. Someone who brought me a lot of joy, someone who was filled with childlike curiosity, innocence and wonder. Someone who valued learning; who was sincere and didn't own any matching outfits.
Now, three years later, I feel detached from the person who wrote them. But I also realize why, for about two years, "Sue" did not return my calls and letters. And I understand better why three other ex-girlfriends won't talk to me. I really hope that some my mistakes, my stupidity when it came to relationships, will help someone. Anyhow, here is the actual journal entry:
March 12, 1996
Was furious at Sue for choosing to eat starfish instead of coming to the class. She drove home instead of waiting for the class to start. Then some of her relatives were there & the mother had a "special dinner" planned for them. So she got lazy & didn't want to drive "30 minutes" back into town. But if she didn't come from a family that valued appearances so much she might have lived closer. She would rather have mindless social bullshit talk which is in her comfort zone. She did not think to ask me how I would feel if she didn't come to class. She didn't ask me how I felt when she told me she wasn't coming. Then later she told me to "cheer up". (expletive deleted), can't you understand that I can't just cheer up and I don't have any desire to. If you would come to my (expletive deleted) classes you would understand how you invalidate someone. You are immature, spoiled, irresponsible, undedicated, unfocussed. She had not enough commitment to her own goals to go home and come back again. She was easily swayed by her parents. She is a confused mess. But at least she is making a half-hearted attempt at working on herself, still more than Greta or Michelle, for example. Someday she may see what she is doing. She claims she thinks about me often when she reads things. I still find it hard to believe that she would make that choice. But she did. Then she didn't want to admit it. I am glad that I pointed it out to her. I won't be friends with someone who is hypocritical, unfocussed, undependable. So tonight I was reminded again why I can't get too emotionally attached to Miss Mommy's Girl, Sue
So, you can see why I sometimes say I have the "Sadim" touch when it comes to relationships-- the Midas touch in reverse. Happily, I didn't permanently destroy my relationship with Sue. We now can laugh about this incident, though with some accompanying pain on my part. We will never be as close as we were. She is sensitive and has a good memory, so she will always be afraid of me of getting too close. She used to look up to me. (As Karen once did) She said she had never met anyone like me. I missed out on a special opportunity with her and I still regret that. We almost made love just a few nights before, which would have been the first time ever for her. When I realized this upon reviewing my journal entries, I couldn't believe I could be so stupid. If not for my low EQ I would hold a very special place forever in her life. I have a big need to be special to others. Is it genetic, or a result of my dysfunctional upbringing? Or both? Probably as I feel more special independent of others, I have less need to be special to others. Little things like being the first to sleep with someone are less important. But they still feel good. Is that healthy or unhealthy? I guess it depends on how great the need is.
Addendum: August 2000. Now I read that letter I wrote and have a good laugh. I laugh at how incredible it is that I could actually think that way and use those words. I am happy to see that I have changed beaucoup since then! I was living in the emotional dark ages!
Constructive Arguing Helps Keep Love in Relationships, by Darrell Sifford, The Blade, Toledo Ohio Sept 16, 1979 --
Here are my notes from the article - one of the little scraps of paper that I have held onto for a long time! My comments are italicized in brackets.
Sifford says people don't fight about real issues but about symptoms of their inability to work things out.
In fact, in the least productive and most damaging arguments there generally is no issue. The precipitating thing is not really the issue. [I suggest this is because the "issue" is the underlying negative feelings]
Therefore he says people need a "grievance procedure," [or what I would call a conflict resolution model.]
Also, in an ineffective relationship things never get worked out because, as he says,"people are too defensive, too sensitive to criticism, too prone too see everything as a personal attack." [Or as I would say the parties feel too defensive, insecure, hostile and hurtful. I would not say they are "too sensitive to criticism." This might imply they are too sensitive in general. I believe it is healthy to be sensitive. What is unhealthy is to feel insecure and to be insecure. The secure, sensitive person can feel something and express their feelings without fear of rejection and abandonment. The more sensitive one is, the sooner one can feel it and express it. This has the potential of averting major conflicts down the road.]
He says most things are simple to resolve if you are flexible and don't see things as a somebody's attempt to control you. [In effect he is saying he wants people not to feel rigid, attacked, controlled. But changing their feelings is harder than he makes it sound. He almost sounds invalidating, as if we all "should" be able to do this easily.]
He says most relationships fail because of unrealistic expectations. He says then people feel trapped and disillusioned. "A man's castle becomes his prison." [I know this is true from personal experience-- you really know something when you have felt it. You can "know" facts, such as 2+2=4 but how can you "know" feelings, such as what "trapped" is, unless you have felt it?]
He gives some good suggestions for finding a mate. (He directs these towards women, since he knows women are most likely to be his readers):
"Do kids like him? Kids have an incredibly good sense about people."
Does he express himself? Or does he bottle his feelings?
He says those who can't express feelings often let irritations build silently and then one day there is a violent explosion like an atomic bomb which so damages the relationship it can't be repaired. (or a series of explosions)
Here is my adaptation of his advice on healthy arguments:
I would add: identify the feelings. Find things to agree on, even if you can only agree that you disagree. Don't hold the other person responsible for your feelings. Be aware of your own feelings.
Your expectations can quickly kill a relationship, I learned recently. My partner was from another culture. She was raised in a strongly Catholic country where it is nearly impossible to escape from the prevailing beliefs. And, of course, she was raised in a different family unit. All of these differences created a conflict in our expectations. I had few expectations when starting the relationship, or perhaps they weren't well defined. She, though, had her own set of very rigid expectations about how a man "should" treat a woman, how a couple "should" act, what it meant to respect someone, how to respond to conflicts, etc. These expectations, I believe, took priority over her amygdala's natural, instinctive attraction to me, which was very strong. Instead of seeing me for who I was, she quickly labeled me as her "Prince Charming." Then she compared me to this unrealistic standard. Of course, I failed to meet this impossible test.
Since then I have thought about my own expectations. For example, I expect someone to show me respect as I have defined it in my writing. I expect someone to validate me and not invalidate me. I expect them to be interested in my feelings, to ask me how I feel, and to want to understand why I feel the way I do. I expect them to support my goals and help me reach them. I expect them to encourage me and help me feel better about myself. I used to expect someone to make me happy. I now realize this is impossible. I realize I must be happy before I enter the relationship. I expect them to be emotionally and financially responsible. And I expect them to value honesty, personal growth, reality, education, independence and freedom.
Actually, "expectations" may not be the right word. Preferences might be better. If we expect someone to have these qualities, chances are we will be disappointed and frustrated when we realize they don't . We might then try to change them- a frustrating, if not infuriating endeavor.
Also, when we think of desirable qualities as preferences, we won't disqualify someone because they fall short in one area, or because they fail to live up to our expectations in relatively minor ways or on relatively few occasions.
It seems healthier to consider the whole person, over a certain period of time, realizing that some will come closer to meeting your preferences, and that no one will fill all of our preferences all of the time.
Your preferences though, are largely a result of a cognitive process. This may interfere with the natural selection of partners by your amygdala. Or you may become infatuated with someone and temporarily forget all your preferences, which may or may not be healthy. Thus there is the ongoing issue of balance between the cognitive and the emotional centers of the brain. I haven't mastered this balance, I will be the first to admit that!
High IQ, Low EQ
When one is intelligent, one is able to skillfully defend oneself. And one is able to quickly note and make a very persuasive argument for the faults of the other. When one has low EQ, one lacks self-awareness and is not open to constructive feedback. One lacks sensitivity to the feelings of others. One is concerned only with one's own unmet emotional needs. One uses the other person in an futile attempt to fill these needs. The other typically feels judged, attacked, resentful, unappreciated, used, and bitter. Compounding the problem, the one with high IQ and low EQ often feels superior and makes assumptions and thinks they understand things when in fact they don't understand. Because they don't truly understand, they lack compassion and empathy. Because they are intelligent, it is important to them to be "right." Thus they are defensive which further reduces their ability to empathize. This is a toxic combination which typically leads to the destruction of the relationship. (My conclusions come from both direct personal and family experience.)
1. From Ken Keyes, The Power of Unconditional Love