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Emotional Intelligence and Intimate Relationships

Julie Fitness, Macquarie University (1)



To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the marriage cup
Whenever you’re wrong,
admit it
Whenever you’re right,
shut up
(Ogden Nash, 1962)

According to Ogden Nash, the secret to a long and happy marriage is relatively simple: know when to say sorry, and don’t "rub it in" when your partner is in the wrong. Like so many clever aphorisms, however, its simplicity is deceptive. In fact, the art of knowing when, why, and how to say sorry in marriage, and the ability to practise forbearance under even the most trying circumstances, require a number of sophisticated emotional skills, including empathy, self-control, and a highly serviceable understanding of human needs and feelings. The interesting point about these skills is how remarkably similar they are to the proposed ingredients of so-called "emotional intelligence", defined by Mayer and Salovey (1997) as "the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotion knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth" (p. 5). Indeed, this striking congruence between the kinds of abilities involved in emotional intelligence, and the kinds of abilities apparently required to successfully negotiate marital ups and downs, suggests that if ever there were a context in which emotional intelligence might be expected to matter, it is marriage. But in what ways is so-called emotional intelligence important to marriage? And what kinds of emotional skills do spouses need to help them weather the vicissitudes of married life?

The concept of emotional intelligence has been enthusiastically received in the popular press, with many espousing it as the recipe for success in every sphere of life. Despite the often-extravagant claims made for its beneficial qualities, however, scientific data on the features and outcomes of emotional intelligence are only beginning to emerge in the psychological literature. Furthermore, although theorists have emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence in intimate relationships, and speculated that more emotionally intelligent people should have longer and happier marriages, there has been little scientific research examining emotional intelligence in the marital context. No doubt this paucity of research is a function both of the newness of the construct and of difficulties in finding reliable and valid measures of it. Nonetheless, psychologists have investigated other emotional phenomena in the context of marital happiness and stability, many of which would be considered to involve aspects of emotional intelligence: for example, emotional perception and expression, empathy, and emotion knowledge and understanding.

The overall aim of this chapter is to discuss some of this investigative work in light of current thinking about emotional intelligence. Specifically, after a brief description of the proposed facets of emotional intelligence, I will review research findings from the marital literature with regard to each of the facets, paying particular attention to gender and individual differences. I will also discuss whether emotional intelligence, as currently conceived, is necessarily adaptive in marriage; and finally, I will examine whether the construct of emotional intelligence itself has anything new or useful to offer scholars with an interest in marital happiness and stability.


The literature reviewed in this chapter reveals a relatively long-standing and rich tradition of psychological research on emotions in the context of marital relationships. In particular, marital researchers have demonstrated that the better spouses are at perceiving, accurately identifying, regulating, and expressing emotions, the happier their relationships are. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis, derived from the emotional intelligence literature, that people differ in their abilities to accurately perceive, identify, and express emotions, understand and reason about emotions, and effectively regulate and manage emotions. Thus it may be argued that the marital literature supports the suggestion that some individuals are indeed more "emotionally intelligent" than others. Moreover, these differences in emotion-related abilities are reliably associated with what may be considered an adaptive and desirable life outcome: marital happiness and stability.

With respect to whether or not the construct of emotional intelligence has anything new or useful to offer marital researchers, this will likely depend on what progress is made in more precisely defining and measuring it. Specifically, scholars need to come to some agreement on the constituents of emotional intelligence, and to decide whether it would make more theoretical sense to conceptualize people’s emotion-related abilities as inter-related but separable competencies, rather than as a unitary form of intelligence. In a related vein, scholars also need to devise more reliable ways of measuring emotional intelligence, or emotion-related abilities. In particular, they need to find ways of measuring people’s abilities to clearly express their own emotions and to accurately interpret others’ emotions; abilities that marital researchers have shown to be especially important in adaptive interpersonal functioning (see also Ciarrochi et al., this volume).

One final point worth making is that emotional intelligence is currently conceived as an exclusively intra-personal mental ability; however, as the research in this chapter has demonstrated, emotions like anger, guilt, jealousy, and love, are profoundly interpersonal phenomena that are played out over time between individuals. Indeed, it could even be argued that people’s emotion accuracy, expressiveness, understanding, and regulation only come to life within interpersonal and relational settings. Emotional intelligence theorists, then, might well look to the marital literature for data and theoretical insights about adaptive emotion functioning, particularly in the context of real-time behavioral interactions. However, emotional intelligence scholars also have a potentially important contribution to make toward enhancing our understanding of adaptive emotion functioning in marriage. For example, research using the Trait Meta-Mood Scale suggests that the accurate perception and understanding of how emotions like anger, shame, guilt, and love unfold over time may play an important role in the maintenance of satisfying long-term relationships, though we are a long way from understanding how the two are linked.

Clearly, emotion and close relationship scholars have much to offer one another with respect to theoretical insights and methodological expertise. It is to be hoped that in the future these researchers will work together to build more dynamic models of the features, predictors, and outcomes of emotional intelligence in emotion-rich contexts like marriage.


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1. Fitness, J. (2001).  Emotional intelligence and intimate relatoinships. In J. Ciarrochi, J. P. Forgas, & J. D. Mayer (Eds.)  Emotional Intelligence and Everyday Life (pp.xi-xviii).  New York: Psychology Press.


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