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Is It Always Good to Be in Sync With Your Partner?

Apr. 1, 2023 Psychology Today

A sense of connection with your relationship partner can occur at many levels. You may both laugh at the same comment or event, giving each of you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. Conversely, you may both become equally angered in the midst of an argument, making it even more unpleasant than it needed to be.

Where do you believe these feelings of connection come from? It would make sense that they have some physiological underpinning. Indeed, according to a new study by University of Texas psychologist Adela Timmons and colleagues (2023), this “linkage,” as they call it, is accounted for by a variety of biological indicators.

Although complex in its root causes, physiological linkages can actually show up quite readily in skin conductance, a reflection of an individual’s overall levels of arousal. If a couple is in sync, then their skin conductance (electrodermal activity, or EDA) should show similar variations across the course of their interactions with each other. In turn, when these variations have a high degree of similarity within a couple, the question is whether a relationship benefits or not.

What Does It Mean to Be in Sync With a Partner?

Before finding out whether the U. Texas researchers were able to support their hypothesis, it’s worthwhile to consider what it means to have a similar EDA as your partner. It’s possible that each of you “react sensitively to their partners’ emotional states, easily take others’ perspectives, and demonstrate high levels of empathy toward others.” However, you could also feed off negative reactions that your partner has during one of those arguments, which would “amplify negative affect and contribute to escalation of conflict.” Some prior research in which couples were placed in a lab and told to argue showed that such high covariation in your physiological responses could be a sign of a relationship in trouble.

Because lab studies don’t take into account the natural context in which couples navigate their emotional landscapes, Timmons and her colleagues asked their 109 dating couples (average age 23 years old) to wear a wireless biosensor on their wrists during the course of a day. On an hourly basis, the couples allowed themselves to be pinged with a questionnaire that asked them to report on what activities they were engaged in at the time. They rated their accompanying emotions on scales of annoyance/irritation, and closeness/connection, as well as rating their personal mood states (stress, happiness, sadness, anxiety, and anger). A rating of relationship satisfaction overall completed the set of assessments the Austin researchers collected on their participants.

The Daily Ebbs and Flows of Connection

In tracking the psychological counterparts of hourly variations in EDAs, Timmons and her collaborators were able to establish that couples indeed varied together over the course of the day’s measures. More importantly, the extent to which their bodies responded similarly was associated with feelings of greater connection and closeness. The effect didn’t go in the opposite direction, moreover, because when they were annoyed they showed no particular physiological covariation in EDA’s.

The research team arrived at these findings after taking into account many alternate factors, such as whether partners were alone with each other, drank alcohol or caffeine or consumed other drugs, and whether they communicated in person or by phone. Other obvious potential factors also were statistically ruled out, including sex, age, and levels of education.

Looking at those other possible contributors to the EDA-closeness relationship, it appeared that when members of a couple were in a bad mood, their physiological linkage increased. The opposite occurred when they were happy. As the authors concluded, “These results suggest that negative emotional states may be more readily linked to increased linkage than positive mood states.”

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