Dating as a woman who feels a lot isn’t easy. The fear of being called "crazy" became so overwhelming that I learned to keep my emotions to myself and act like I was cool going with the flow. But now and again my anxiety intensified and caused the floodgates of my emotions to open. I would text long paragraphs to the guy I was dating, hoping he would understand my perspective and meet my needs, but the most common outcome was shame and heartbreak. After enough relationships ended like that, I thought something was wrong with me.
Luckily, therapy taught me to validate and communicate myself better. When I met my fiancé, I continued to stay true to myself and voice my needs and feelings. At first I was worried that he would freak out and pull away. But to my pleasant surprise he responded positively and made me feel seen and understood, which quickly dissolved my anxiety. Our relationship feels so easy compared to my past ones. In hindsight, my emotional needs weren’t the problem; the problem was my struggle to communicate those needs and my exes' lack of emotional intelligence to understand and meet them.
My experience isn’t unfounded. A 15-year longitudinal study by Dr James Parker tracking a group of over 300 people from undergraduate through to middle adulthood found that emotional intelligence predicted relationship satisfaction and length of relationship living with the same partner.
Generally speaking, people with high emotional intelligence know what’s going on with themselves and are good at expressing it. They have high social awareness and adaptability. In some research models, empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – is also defined as part of emotional intelligence. These qualities help an individual to communicate their needs and meet their partner’s needs as well as navigate relationship conflicts effectively. Couples with matching levels of emotional intelligence tend to be happier and stay together longer.
But emotional intelligence isn’t developed uniformly in all areas of life, which can explain why someone might be a successful leader at work but have poor relationship quality. Geoff Crane, a researcher on the aforementioned study and founder of Adaptimist Insights, says: "Emotional intelligence can be highly contextual and change from one place to another. Different environments can induce different levels of certain aspects of emotional intelligence. For example, if you have a job that doesn’t require you to have interpersonal interactions whatsoever, you wouldn’t develop interpersonal skills there. You don’t really think about it."
As modern dating culture normalises practices that are void of intimacy and empathy such as ghosting and casual sex, people who frequently engage in them can end up having low emotional intelligence in their love life. Finding themselves challenged, it’s then easier to break up than work on themselves and the relationship. Over time, they might struggle to form satisfying, long-lasting relationships. "We teach people how to treat us," adds Geoff, pointing out that people learn how to act in different contexts through feedback loops. In the dating context, if you have weak boundaries and pretend that something doesn’t bother you when it does, you will likely encourage unwanted behaviours in your partner even if they show signs of emotional intelligence in other areas of life.
It might sound like low emotional intelligence is the ultimate deal-breaker but it doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. If the partner with lower emotional intelligence is willing to improve themselves and both partners are committed to making the relationship work, it can get better. However it’s important not to confuse a partner who has less emotional intelligence with one who simply doesn’t care. Geoff says: "They might understand your perspective and feel what you feel. But if they don’t have 'empathic concerns', meaning that they don’t actually care about you, there’s not going to be any empathy."
Five ways to spot emotional intelligence in a partner
1. They're self-aware
Emotional understanding is a fundamental sign of emotional intelligence. Cindy Barnes, a UK licensed psychotherapist for highly sensitive individuals (HSP), advises: "If you could see someone talking about their emotions and explaining why they feel the way they feel, it’s a good sign. If you can’t identify your own emotions, it’s very unlikely that you’re able to identify them in someone else."
2. They’re curious about you
People who are highly emotionally intelligent are flexible in thinking. Cindy says: "They’re more likely to be open-minded and curious about you. They make observations about you and ask you why."
3. They’re self-sufficient
People with high emotional intelligence know their body and emotions, which allows them to meet their own needs. For example, being frequently 'hangry' is a sign of low body and emotional awareness. The hangry person doesn’t know they're experiencing hunger; they let it go on and get irritated and snappy with people around them. However, Geoff says: "Whether this is something that will interfere with your relationship depends on the couple and how much work they want to put in."
4. They have good boundaries
When people are self-aware, they know what boundaries to set. On the other hand, allowing emotions to override rational judgment and overlooking bad behaviours is a sign of undeveloped emotional intelligence. Examples might be if your partner is still involved on and off with their ex or if they struggle to say no to people around them.
5. They have healthy, lasting, non-romantic relationships
Being around others requires an individual to develop their interpersonal skills. If your partner has longstanding friendships and is close with their family, it’s likely that they have learned what works and what doesn’t in relationships and will have high emotional intelligence as a result.