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“Are You Listening?!” Cold-Shouldering a Partner’s Successes Leaves Relationships On Ice

When something great happens in our personal lives, it’s exciting to share the event with people close to us.  But at one time or another, you’ve probably disclosed some good news that wasn’t met with the degree of excitement or encouragement you had hoped for. It can be disappointing – even irritating – to get a lukewarm response when you expected the other person’s ardent interest. The process of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction is called “capitalization,” and research suggests it has benefits for romantic relationships. 

Capitalization is associated with happier relationships

Active and constructive capitalization responses (i.e., those characterized by attentiveness, encouragement, and enthusiasm) are associated with more intimacy, higher marital satisfaction,1 and a lower likelihood of breaking up.2 In fact, capitalization is more strongly associated with relationship well-being and stability than is providing support in the face of negative events.2 This finding suggests that how couple members support each other during the good times may be even more important than how they behave during the bad times. Capitalization may boost relationship quality as a function of feeling understood and cared about – after all, responding positively to a partner’s good news sends the message that his or her feelings and accomplishments are valued. On the other hand, a lack of warm responses might put the relationship at risk of freezing to death.

Responding positively to a partner’s good news sends the message that his or her feelings and accomplishments are valued. 

Who is at risk for poor capitalization?

Attachment style describes how romantic partners relate to each other and is based on people’s underlying relationship goals (e.g., closeness vs. independence) and strategies for dealing with relationship distress. People high in attachment avoidance value emotional distance, are not comfortable depending on their partners, and tend to cope with relationship distress by overly relying on themselves or withdrawing from the situation. Given these characteristics, it is no surprise that avoidantly-attached individuals have trouble capitalizing on their partners’ successes as well as recognizing responsiveness in others.3 In one study,4 101 couples came into the lab and took turns disclosing an important positive event to each other. Importantly, the event had to be something in the individual’s personal life outside of the relationship (e.g., receiving a good grade, getting a job offer, reconnecting with an old friend). Afterwards, couple members independently completed a questionnaire about their own and their partner’s responsiveness. Additionally, trained observers rated videorecordings of the discussions for active and constructive responding (e.g., “That’s so great! Tell me more!”). This approach provided an objective picture of how the couple actually behaved compared to participants’ perceptions of responsiveness in the interaction. 

In addition to underestimating their partner’s capitalization efforts compared to the trained observers, the results indicated that more avoidantly attached partners reported being less responsive and were rated as behaving less responsively, especially if their disclosing partner was more anxiously attached. In other words, if you’re someone who likes emotional distance, you aren’t likely to act very interested when your clingy partner shares a positive event. Although this study only examined positive (capitalization) interactions, more avoidantly-attached individuals show similar patterns during a discussion of relationship conflict: compared to the behavior ratings of third-party observers, individuals higher in attachment avoidance report less responsiveness in terms of both their own and their partner’s behavior.5

These studies indicate that attachment avoidance is a risk factor for a) being less responsive to a partner’s positive news, and b) not picking up on others’ responsiveness to your own positive news. Part of the issue with perceiving others as non-responsive could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: perhaps avoidant individuals share less personal information, making it hard for their partners to respond well, which leads avoidant people to see their partners as less responsive. Fortunately, having a partner who is more securely attached (less anxious) appears to mitigate the negative effect of attachment avoidance on responsiveness.4 The fact that avoidant people responded the worst when their partner was high in attachment anxiety might be because anxious individuals’ yearning for closeness and affirmation pushes away the avoidant partner, resulting in less effective capitalization. But even in anxious-avoidant pairings, it would seem possible for partners to become better at recognizing opportunities for capitalization and learning more positive ways of responding. 

So the next time your beloved shares a personal success, remember that a heartfelt “congratulations!” goes a long way towards fanning those warm feelings that sustain relationship happiness.

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1Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228–245.

2Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 904–917.

3Gosnell, C. L., & Gable, S. L. (2013). Attachment and capitalizing on positive events. Attachment & Human Development, 15(3), 281-302.

4Shallcross, S. L., Howland, M., Bemis, J., Simpson, J. A., & Frazier, P. (2011). Not “capitalizing” on social capitalization interactions: The role of attachment insecurity. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(1), 77-85.

5Beck, L. A., Pietromonaco, P. R., DeBuse, C. J., Powers, S. I., & Sayer, A. G. (2013). Spouses’ attachment pairings predict neuroendocrine, behavioral, and psychological responses to marital conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(3), 388-424.

Jana Lembke - Science Of Relationships articles
Jana's research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.

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