A series of five observational studies of couples discussing conflicts, diverging preferences, or relationship strengths has revealed that when one partner feels loved, but the other feels unloved, the partner who feels loved buffers the damaging effects of destructive behaviors of the other partner. Due to this, destructive behaviors mostly occurred when both partners felt unloved. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Humans need to feel loved. Feeling loved is so fundamental that it has been one of the main topics of works of poets, writers, philosophers, and scientists through history. It is also one of the most common topics in everyday discussions of interpersonal relationships.
Feeling loved can set aside risks of rejection, repair threatening interactions, and defuse conflicting situations. On the other hand, feeling unloved motivates people to be self-protective and inspires destructive behaviors such as expressing hostility, criticism, blame, and anger towards partners.
Feeling loved and unloved always means loved or unloved by someone else. It requires another person. Due to this, scientific research into feeling loved needs to take into account both partners in a relationship. These pairs of people in a social relationship are called dyads.
Study author Eri Sasaki and her colleagues wanted to explore how feeling loved or unloved influences the course of interactions between partners in a dyad. They wanted to know whether it is necessary for both partners to be loved for damaging effects of destructive behavior to be mitigated. What happens when only one of the partners in a dyad feels loved? They defined feeling loved as feeling loved, cared for, accepted, valued and understood.
“Despite feeling loved being a fundamental human need, there is no consensually agreed upon definition of love and feeling loved,” explained Sasaki, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto. “Together with my co-authors, my first goal was to integrate scholarly and lay conceptualizations of love and key relationship theories to identify core components of feeling loved. These core components of feeling loved include feeling cared for, accepted, valued, and understood.”
“I was also interested in understanding dyadic patterns of feeling loved during critical relationship interactions. For example, can Pat feeling loved reduce the negative reactions that occur when Pat’s partner Alex feels unloved (strong link), or is Alex feeling unloved enough to create destructive behavior that undermine relationships even if Pat feels loved (weak link)?”
Looking at contributions of previous theorists, the researchers expected that persons feeling loved would react to challenges to their relationship in a way that supports the relationship. They do that because they trust that their partners will be responsive. On the other hand, feeling unloved activates a range of destructive behaviors, such as hostility, anger, and blame, that are designed to protect the person against expected hurt and rejection. In contrast, people who feel loved can set aside self-protection in order to seek closeness and repair threatening interactions.
Sasaki and her colleagues conducted a series of five studies in which they observed interactions between couples discussing conflicts, diverging preferences, or relationship strengths. In study 1, 143 New Zealand couples each had a 7-minute discussion about the most serious and ongoing issue identified by one of the couple members.
After this, couple partners independently completed assessments of attachment anxiety and self-esteem (the Adult Attachment Questionnaire) and feeling loved (three items). Trained coders observed the discussions and provided assessments of destructive behavior (e.g. “this person acted in a way that was hurtful to their partner”) and loving behavior (e.g. “this person was warm/affectionate towards their partner”) by the partners.
Study 2 involved 124 Dutch couples who discussed their diverging preferences. In Study 3, 104 couples who had children discussed their most important shared conflicts, but assessments also included behaviors and feelings during family activities.
Study 4 involved two discussions – one devoted to an area of conflict where one partner wanted a change in the other partner and another discussion where the roles and the topic were reversed, the other partner wanting a change in the first. Study 4 included 180 couples. Study 5 included 285 couples and involved discussions of conflict areas in a way similar to study 4, but also of relationship strengths.
Results showed that feelings of being loved are often similar in partners within a couple. When one partner felt loved, it was likely that the other will feel loved as well and vice versa. However, there were also situations when this was not the case.
Participants who felt less loved showed more destructive behaviors when their partners also reported feeling less loved, but not when their partner reported feeling loved. Similarly, participants who felt more loved, showed less destructive behaviors both when their partner felt less and more loved.
The researchers conclude from this that a partner feeling loved may induce greater loving behavior that, in turn, buffers the negative effects of the feeling of not being loved of the other partner on destructive behavior. Study 2 showed that this effect remained in both verbal and non-verbal interactions.
This interaction between feeling loved and destructive behavior found in the first two studies was shown to persist when couples are discussing both conflicts and family activities (study 3). It remained the same both when participants were discussing conflicts where one wanted to change the other and when their roles were reversed (study 4). It remained in both conflict and non-conflict interactions (study 5).
“We all encounter challenging moments in our relationships,” Sasaki told PsyPost. “Our research shows that in these situations, one partner — such as Pat — feeling loved (cared for, accepted, valued, and understood) can act as a ‘strong link’ and protect against the other partner — such as Alex — feeling unloved by reducing negative reactions such as anger and hostility.”
“This means that during important relationship interactions, we should pay attention to our own and our partner’s feelings of being loved and find ways to facilitate feelings of being loved in ourselves and our partner. By leveraging our own or our partner’s feelings of being loved during the times when it matters, we will be more equipped to successfully navigate challenging relationship interactions in ways that will allow relationships to thrive.”
The study gives an important contribution to the scientific study of interactions between romantic couples. However, it should be noted that interactions observed in the studies were very short. Behavior in laboratory conditions and when participants know that they are being observed might also not be identical to behavior of the same people in private.
“Our research shows how one partner — such as Pat — feeling loved in a particular relationship interaction, such as during an argument, can act as a strong link by protecting against problematic dynamics within that interaction,” Sasaki said. “But, it is likely that if Pat has to continually manage Alex’s persistent feelings of being loved across interactions, Pat may grow weary and resentful over time and thus the benefits of being a strong link may dissipate. Instead, both Pat and Alex may need to take turns to act as a strong link to sustain relationships over time. Future research should examine over-time dyadic effects of feeling loved.”
The study, “Feeling Loved as a Strong Link in Relationship Interactions: Partners Who Feel Loved May Buffer Destructive Behavior by Actors Who Feel Unloved”, was authored by Eri Sasaki, Nickola C. Overall, Harry T. Reis, Francesca Righetti, Valerie T. Chang, Rachel S.T. Low, Annette M.E. Henderson, Caitlin S. McRae, Emily J. Cross, Shanuki D. Jayamaha, Michael R. Maniaci, and Camille J. Reid.