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The Best Trait to Look for in a Mate (and Three Ways to Spot it)

As a relationships researcher, a question that I get a lot from my single friends is, “What should I look for in a partner?” Of course, a complete answer to this question can take a while and is largely dependent on who is asking the question. Are you the kind of person who loves to party? Your relationship will go more smoothly if you find someone who is similarly outgoing. Are you an animal rights activist? You should probably find a partner who doesn’t wear a fur coat. But regardless of who is asking me this question, there is one particular trait that always comes to mind – something that I think absolutely everyone should look for in a partner: responsiveness.

A responsive partner is someone who is good at making you feel understood, validated, and cared for.1,2 Find a responsive partner and everything else falls into place; it's like relationships on easy mode. But a lot of people have a hard time separating responsive partners from “nice" partners (or even not-so-nice partners). Responsiveness has nothing to do with how willing someone is to wine and dine you or say flattering things to you. It's all about how they react in those more vulnerable, emotionally-charged moments. When their goals come into conflict with yours, how do they deal with the problem? For example, say you get a job offer a couple hours away from where you currently live. A responsive partner would likely think about your perspective (“Congratulations on the job offer!”) and then try to find a compromise (“Maybe we could move a bit closer and then you could commute…”), whereas a less responsive partner might suddenly turn into a self-absorbed jerk (“I like it here! No one is moving and that’s that!”). As you can imagine, it’s easier to work out relationship issues, big and small, with a partner who’s more responsive rather than less.

Or, how about when you share something personal with your partner, maybe by telling them about a setback that you’ve encountered or a disappointing experience you’ve had? A responsive partner is likely to listen and try to understand (“That must have felt awful! And then what happened?”), whereas a less responsive partner might dismiss or downplay your experience and try to bring the conversation back into “safer” territory (“Ha, that sucks. Hey, do you like Mexican food?”). As a result, it’s easier to feel closer and more connected to a responsive partner, because they’re easier to talk to and share meaningful experiences with.

If you are interested in finding someone who is responsive to your needs, here are three key behaviors that a responsive partner is likely to display:

1. Understanding.

Highly responsive partners pay attention while you share your perspective, and try to properly understand what you are communicating. Understanding partners often ask questions in an attempt to gather more information, so that they can better comprehend their partner’s point of view. They may also summarize and paraphrase your perspective, to ensure that their understanding is accurate (“So what you’re saying is…”).

2. Validation.

Responsive partners make you feel that your perspectives are valid and respected. They may say things like, “I completely understand why you feel that way,” or “I can see why that would be a(n) [exciting/frustrating/disappointing] experience.” Thus, responsive partners make you feel respected and supported. In the context of a disagreement, validation doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner gives into you. A responsive partner can make you feel like your views are valid even while they’re standing their ground (e.g., “I know my family can be a bit taxing, and I can see why you aren’t thrilled about an extended visit. But it is the holidays, so I think they would be hurt if we didn’t make time for them”).

3. Caring.

Finally, responsive partners will make it clear that they are concerned about your wellbeing, even in the context of a conflict. They often do this by expressing affection, or by communicating concern (“I hope I didn’t hurt you by saying that”). Responsive partners may also show their concern and support in more instrumental ways; for example, by bringing you soup when you’re sick. Of course, having put effort into understanding your needs (see Step 1), responsive people are in a better position to care for you in a particularly sensitive, helpful way because they understand what you’re going through.

The situation does play a role in determining how responsive someone is. Someone who is under a lot of stress is not going to be nearly as responsive as they are when they’re not stressed. Responsiveness can also vary from relationship to relationship – people tend to be more responsive toward their partners when they are in more satisfying relationships and when they feel that their partners are more responsive toward them in return. So part of having a responsive partner is being a responsive partner! All this said, there are definitely individual differences in how responsive a person typically is. Find someone who is skilled (and motivated) at responding sensitively to your feelings and your needs, and I guarantee that you will have a much more rewarding relationship experience.

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1Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. In D. J. Mashek & A. P. Aron (Eds.), Handook of closeness and imtimacy (pp. 201-225). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

2Maisel, N. C., Gable, S. L., & Strachman, A. (2008). Responsive behaviors in good times and bad. Personal Relationships, 15, 317-338.

Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner? 

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