The risks of looking to just one person for all of your emotional needs

Bella DePaulo

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One and done. That's how some people think about their relationships. Find "The One" and now your relationship challenges have been mastered. In your spouse, you have the person who fulfills all of your wishes and needs, especially your emotional needs. You have the person who cheers you up when you are sad, calms you when you are anxious or angry, and cheers you on when things are going well. Popular songs romanticize the idea of "The One and Only" with lyrics such as "You are my everything" and "I just want to be your everything."

Ever since I started writing about single life, I have questioned the wisdom of this. I've often asked whether this sort of intensive coupling has its risks.

No need to wonder anymore. A series of studies by Elaine Cheung and her colleagues shows the power of The Ones over The One. What is powerful, what seems to be linked to greater satisfaction with your life, is having different people to help you with different emotions. These are "emotionships" rather than relationships.

For example, when something good happens to me, there are some specific people I just love to turn to, because I know they are going to be so happy for me and so effusive about saying so. When I want someone to share my righteous anger, though, I might look to someone else, and when I want someone to hang around with when I'm anxious, I might think first of someone different from the first two.

Demonstrating that having several emotionships can be better than just one relationship

How did the researchers know whether people really do have emotionships and whether they look to specific people when they have different kinds of emotional needs?

Their first study addressed that. An online sample of adults (a more diverse group than the usual college student participants) was first asked to nominate one friend who would be effective in helping them in these situations:

1. Cheering them up when they are sad

2. Calming them down when they are anxious

3. Calming them down when they are angry

4. Sharing their happiness over good news

5. Amplifying their anger

A while later, the same people were invited to participate in what was described as a totally different study. If they agreed, they were first asked to relive an emotional experience involving family members. Some were asked to relive a sad experience, others an experience that made them anxious, and still others, one that made them angry. Then they were asked to list the names of five friends in the order they came to mind, and say for each how much time they'd want to spend with that person if they had a free day, how close they felt to the person, and how satisfied they were with their relationship.

Here's what they found:

  • Participants could easily identify specific friends who were particularly good at helping them with regulating particular emotions
  • The people they nominated really did seem to be emotion specialists in meaningful ways.

Specifically:

  • Friends who are especially good at helping with a particular emotion are the friends who first come to mind when you are experiencing that emotion. So, for example, if you had just relived in your mind an experience with a family member that had made you sad, and then you were asked to list five friends in the order they came to mind, the friend best at cheering you up when you are sad is especially likely to come to mind right away.
  • When you are experiencing a particular emotion, you feel closer to the person best at helping you with that emotion than to other friends. You also want to spend more time with that emotion specialist and you are more satisfied with that relationship.

To have learned all that was fine, but among social scientists – and Americans more generally – happiness is the Holy Grail. Are you more satisfied with your life if you have a more diverse emotional profile than if you look to just one person to fulfill all of your needs for regulating your emotions?

In two studies, the authors found that the answer is yes: "Taken together, our findings…suggest that having a diverse portfolio of emotionships are associated with greater well-being."

Not just closeness: Variety matters, too

Is variety the spice of life? It may be even more than that. If you and someone else have the same number of people who are close to you, and if you feel the same depth of closeness to those people, you are probably more satisfied with your life than the other person is if you have different people who help you with different emotions.

Although we still need better causal evidence, the studies suggest that it is better to have, for example, someone you can turn to when you are anxious who is different from the person (or persons) you turn to when you are sad or when you want to share good news and feel confident that the person who hears it will be genuinely happy for you.

The results of these studies may be particularly relevant to people who are preoccupied with finding “The One” and feel sure that such a person will complete them. The authors hint at that when they said this:

"These results are especially important in light of recent societal trends suggesting that contemporary Americans are increasingly relying on their spouses (and decreasingly relying on their broader social networks) to fulfill their higher level needs (Finkel, Hui, Carswell, & Larson, 2014)."

Single people are more likely to have “The Ones” than “The One.” People who instead have “The One” are more often valued and celebrated. This research casts some doubt on that way of thinking.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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