Responsiveness is one of the essential elements of long lasting happy relationships according to couples research conducted by John Gottman of the Gottman Institute. Responsiveness in the context of relationships is the ability to tune into another's experience and adjust your behavior in order to meet the other person. A responsive partner sends all sorts of important messages like:
- You're important to me
- I care about your feelings and needs
- I am here with you
- We are connected
- Our bond is a secure one
- You are not alone
- I'm not judging you
- Your experience is valid
- There is space for you in me
Unfortunately being responsive to your partner isn't always the intuitive interaction you hope it could be. In addition, the way you find out that you haven't been responsive doesn't usually promote more responsiveness. The communication you receive from your partner when you are not responsive often contains a blend of accusations, analyses, name-calling, demands, angry outbursts, pleading, and giving you the cold shoulder. This form of communication works partially in that your partner will, at least temporarily, get you to respond. In the long term though, this kind of interaction leads to a stiff and unresponsiveness partnership.
If this kind of thing is happening in your relationship, it's helpful to get more clear and intentional about what it means to be a responsive partner. Let's take a look at some essential ingredients of a responsive partner.
1. As a responsive partner you, first and foremost, you consistently meet your own needs. If your gas tank is near empty most of the time, it's pretty tough to be responsive to others.
2. Communicate early and often. When your gas tank is temporarily empty, communicate that to your partner immediately, e.g., "Welcome home honey. I want you to know that I had a hard day and I need to eat and zone out with my book for a few minutes before I can connect."
3. Make a consistent effort to notice what's going on with your partner on physical, emotional, energetic, and mental dimensions. Then express what you notice as you notice it. This noticing might be formed as a question, e.g., "Is that a new shirt?", "How are you feeling? It seems like something might be up for you?", "Are you a bit low energy today?"
4. Figure out what the important events of your partner's life are and pay special attention to his or her experience around those events. Make time to hear about your partner's experience and express what you saw and appreciated about him or her in as focused a way as you can. How you express what you notice depends not on the type of expression that's most accessible to you, but rather the type of expression that your partner most easily receives, which leads us to the next ingredient.
5. Notice what channel your partner most easily receives and is nourished by your attention: touch, energetic presence or matching, facial expression, or words. You might be saying, "But I can't force myself to make a certain facial expression." True, and if you did, it might look a bit contorted. Learning to express yourself in channels that you don't access often is a practice like anything. It's about noticing your own experience in a particular channel and with gentle intention asking that part of you to allow the expression of what's in your heart to show up there.
6. Lastly, as a responsive partner you make connecting with your partner a priority and this is clear with the decisions you make every day. These decisions are little and big. For example, you could answer your email alone in your room, but you choose to come sit at the dining room table so as to be in the same room as your partner as she or he is cooking dinner. Or, your boss wants you to go on a big business trip on your partner's 40th birthday, and you take the time to negotiate that trip so that you can be home for the birthday party.
Take some time tonight with your partner to celebrate the ways you are responsive to each other. If you are unclear on any of the ingredients above, ask your partner about them.