Despite popular belief, study finds little evidence of emotional interdependence in romantic relationships

Though people often feel they are emotionally attuned to their romantic partner, new research has found little evidence that couples regularly experience the same emotional states simultaneously.

The study, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was the first to systematically examine whether emotions between partners were interconnected.

“People experience, share and regulate emotions most often and most intensely in their close relationships,” said study author Laura Sels of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

“How others understand and respond to these emotions is critical for both the individual’s well-being and the quality of the relationship. I am interested in these exact processes, and ultimately in how we could improve them.”

Sels and her colleagues conducted three studies to investigate emotional interdependence in romantic couples.

In the first study, 79 couples discussed several health-related topics and then watched a video of the conversation while they recalled their emotional experience second-by-second with a rating dial. But fewer than half of the couples displayed substantially more emotional interdependence than “pseudocouples” — which the researchers generated by randomly combining participants.

In the second study, 50 couples completed an emotion questionnaire 10 times a day for a week using a smartphone app. Both partners reported their emotions at the same time, but were asked not to communicate with each other about their questions and answers.

The researchers found evidence that couples’ emotions tended to fluctuate together, but there was a large variance among couples. In other words, some couple appeared to have a fairly high level of emotional interdependence, but others did not.

For their third study, the researchers combined the methodologies of the first two studies and recruited another 101 couples. Despite the larger sample size, the researchers still found little evidence for emotional interdependence.

“We found that direct emotional connections between partners have small to moderate effects, are difficult to observe with the existing methods in most couples, may not generalize across studies, and do not seem to be an indicator of closeness of a relationship,” the researchers concluded.

Surprisingly, the findings indicated that the amount of time that partners spent together did not seem to have much influence on emotional interdependence.

“​The idea that people in close relationships by default become emotionally attuned to each other might seem intuitively logical and appealing but, as always, the truth seems more complex and ambiguous. Although partners undoubtedly impact each other extensively in numerous domains, this does not necessarily result in direct linkages between their emotions,” Sels told PsyPost.

“In light of these findings, we hypothesized in other recent work that while real emotional interdependence may only characterize close relationships in specific contexts, perceived interdependence may perhaps be more prevalent and relevant for well-being. We indeed found preliminary evidence for this.”

That study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that couples’ perceived emotional similarity predicted how much love people felt for their partner.

“Supporting the role of perceptions rather than actual experiences, we found that emotional similarity had to be detected before exerting an effect on closeness, and also over-perceiving similarities had beneficial effects in daily life,” Sels explained.

The study, “The Occurrence and Correlates of Emotional Interdependence in Romantic Relationships“, was authored by Laura Sels, Jed Cabrieto, Emily Butler, Harry Reis, Eva Ceulemans, and Peter Kuppens.