For anyone wondering this Valentine’s Day if the relationships in their life – with their children, parents, boss and significant other — are truly connected, balanced and healthy, there is a new scientifically based test to assess them.
“The Universal Language of Love,” a book recently released by Colorado State University emotional availability expert Zeynep Biringen, offers the test and solutions to relationships that are “out of whack.” The test, and information about how to fix less than fulfilling results, can help all types of relationships – with effort — to become mutually balanced and rewarding. Biringen defines emotional availability as the connective tissue in relationships – the quality that makes relationships and interactions within relationships healthy, equal and rewarding.
“People take tests for all sorts of things, and the one thing that we don’t think about taking a test in relation to is our relationships,” said Biringen. “This is a simple test for any type of relationship, and everyone is in a relationship of some kind: parent with child, a relationship with a friend, boss or coworker, your relationship with your significant other. In so many ways, we need to know how a relationship that is important to us is going if we’re going to improve it – or even maintain it – in any way. How can you do that if you don’t know where you are, in terms of the relationship? And there is something you can do to adjust the relationship that is on the wrong course.”
Biringen, a professor in CSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, has primarily focused 20 years of emotional availability research on parent-child relationships and how that impacts child development. But, the concept of the importance and impact of emotional availability applies to all relationships.
Emotional availability and emotional intelligence are connected, says Biringen. Emotional intelligence is the ability to read one’s emotions and the emotions of others and respond appropriately – something that an individual develops and can change. Emotional availability, on the other hand, is what gives relationships their quality and connection and isn’t about a single person, but rather how two people in a relationship interact. Emotional availability focuses on effective communication and an awareness of self and others, and the way individuals interact. If one person invests more emotionally in a relationship than another, or doesn’t respond appropriately to signals within the relationship, that relationship needs some attention to emotional availability.
Classified as the language of emotional availability, Biringen says it all comes down to level of six qualities in a relationship:
– Sensitivity, or an ability to read others nonverbal and verbal cues and emotions. An appropriate level of sensitivity allows a relationship to form a strong emotional connection. How does the relationship feel? Do people in the relationship feel understood or insecure?
– Appropriate structure to interactions, or knowing what works in a specific relationship to guide it instead of force it into a rewarding connection with appropriate boundaries. Do the people in the relationship support each other?
– Being available without being intrusive. Caring about but not attempting to control a person in a relationship or the environment of the relationship through neediness or attempts to dominate. Is one person taking without giving? Is there a lack of space to allow one to be his own person?
– No overt or covert hostility. Biringen’s research shows that up to 20 to 30 percent of parents show some degree of hostility toward their infants or children with irritability, bad words, etc. Are there frequent relationship crises in day-to-day life within this relationship?
– Are both people in the relationship responsive to each other? Are both people – be it two adults or a parent and child – willing to engage the other, or is one party blasé toward the other’s efforts to connect?
– Do both people allow each other to be involved in their daily lives? Are both people sharing their lives, or is one holding the other at a “safe distance?”
The impact of emotional availability in relationships starts at a young age and impacts relationships throughout a lifetime. Research shows that children who have emotionally available relationships with their parents are less aggressive and less likely to be the targets of aggression – bullying – from other children. Children from emotionally available homes have better peer relationships, are more attentive in school and relate better to their teachers. Understanding emotional availability as a child likely leads to healthier adult interactions, too.
A simple test can be used by anyone, and a surprising number of people should consider trying it: Biringen estimates from research results that one-third of the population is emotionally unavailable in significant relationships that may appear to be normal. The book includes tailored tests for parent-infant relationships, parent-child relationships, adult-adult relationships, and leader/boss- employee relationships.
“Relationships are really easy if you’re emotionally engaged and the other person is as well,” says Biringen. “You can’t make someone emotionally available entirely, but you can change your behavior and set the tone of emotional availability in your relationships. Then it is up to the other person to see it and figure out if they want to respond to that change.”
More information about Biringen’s work and emotional availability is at www.emotionalavailability.com.
The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of Colorado State University’s College of Applied Human Sciences.