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 expect someone’s ardent interest and get a lukewarm response instead. The process of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction is called “capitalization,” and research suggests it has major benefits for romantic relationships.
So-called active and constructive capitalization responses (that is, those characterized by attentiveness, encouragement, and enthusiasm) are associated with more intimacy, higher marital satisfaction, and a lower likelihood of breaking up. In fact, capitalization is more strongly associated with relationship well-being and stability (PDF) than is providing support in the face of negative events.
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 causing partners to feel 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. Why does this sometimes occur? Part of it comes down to what researchers call attachment style, a concept connected to people’s underlying relationship goals (e.g., closeness versus independence) and strategies for dealing with relationship distress.
People high in what’s called “attachment avoidance” value emotional distance, are not comfortable depending on their partners, and tend to cope with relationship stress 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. In one study, 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 (such as receiving a good grade, getting a job offer, or reconnecting with an old friend).
Afterward, each partner independently completed a questionnaire about their own and their significant other’s responsiveness. Additionally, trained observers rated video recordings 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.
The results indicated that, in addition to underestimating their partner’s capitalization efforts compared to the trained observers, more avoidantly attached partners reported being less responsive and were rated as behaving less responsively, especially if their disclosing partner was more anxiously attached (an attachment style characterized by a certain degree of clinginess). 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.
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. Some of this 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 than they really are. Fortunately, having a partner who is more securely attached (less anxious) appears to mitigate this effect.
The fact that avoidant people responded the worst when their partner was high in attachment anxiety, then, 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.
Attachment style isn’t destiny, though. Once you realize the importance of capitalization, there’s no reason not to make a conscious effort to do a better job of it. So the next time your beloved shares a personal success, remember that a heartfelt “congratulations!” goes a long way toward fanning those warm feelings that sustain relationship happiness.
A version of this post was originally published on Science of Relationships.