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My Theory of Affection

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When musicians see the phrase ‘theory of affection’ their thoughts turn to 17th-century concepts of mimesis and the portrayal of emotion in music. But, interesting as that is, my purpose today is wider than the period-specific world of Affektenlehre, concerning instead the general human question of what makes us feel fondness.

It’s something I’ve thought about blogging on for many years, but there was always something that seemed more of the moment. I have been piqued into at last by reading something that for a moment looked like it was going to articulate my personal theory in more formal terms, but which in fact turned out to be a near miss.

Chip and Dan Heath report on the work of Harry T. Reis, a social psychologist who aspired to create a universal theory of relationships. He placed responsiveness at the heart of what creates interpersonal bonds, and outlined three ways in which this works:

Understanding: My partner knows how I see myself and what is important to me.
Validation: My partner respects who I am and what I want.
Caring: My partner takes active and supportive steps helping me meet my needs.

It was the phrase ‘perceived partner responsiveness’ that caught my attention, i.e. the way our relationships are stronger when we perceive our partners are responsive to us, as at first sight it seemed to articulate exactly how I have been thinking about bonds of affection. But, whilst his categories of understanding, validation and caring are all useful for thinking about interpersonal connection, I feel this exposition is missing a key element. His list is all about what other people do for you; indeed Chip and Dan Heath summarise it as ‘mutual selfishness’.

But, going by what I’ve noticed in my own heart, this is the wrong way round. My experience is that you feel affection for people for whom you can do something. When people let you affect them, that’s when you have feelings of warmth towards them. You can’t make someone love you by buying them roses, but if they accept your roses with pleasure, you are more likely to fall further in love with them.

I developed this theory when I was still working in Higher Education, and noticed which students I found myself fonder of. The cliché of favouritism is that teachers like the better-performing students more than the less skilled, but I found that correlation to be imperfect at best. Yes, I liked a lot of our high-flyers, but I also found myself caring for students who were conspicuously struggling.

The common denominator amongst those students with whom I had the best relationships was consistently which ones would seek and take my advice, those who let me make a difference to them. Those students made me feel that I was being useful and doing my job, and I liked them for it. It didn’t matter really if the help was transforming an able musician into an exceptional one or a floundering student into one with some grasp of the basics. The glow came from them letting me help them on their journey.

Conversely, those who ignored or rejected all feedback and continued on their wrongheaded way elicited emotions that ranged from frustration to irritation to eventual resignation. And those relationships remained formal, rather than warm.

It’s not just in music that this holds true, though of course music still forms the contexts of many of my relationships. But it’s also there in the fabric of daily life: there’s pleasure in helping a stranger pick up the shopping they’ve dropped, in lending a neighbour a teapot, in giving an acquaintance met by chance a lift home to save them a walk. The affection in these cases may be mild and fleeting compared to the bonds with friends, family and choir members, but it is qualitatively very like them.

One of the things that observing this taught me was that it was okay to ask for help. I used to worry a lot about imposing, but it turns out that people like to feel useful and will respond willingly. They will like you the better for it.

I think the reason it works this way round, that the love grows in the heart of the giver, is that letting someone in to meet your needs is an act of trust. To accept help, you need to be vulnerable, and this in turn creates intimacy.

You can test this notion by thinking how it feels when someone is trying to be helpful but they just come over as interfering; or how it feels when you try to help someone and they brush you off. In the first instance you just want to be left alone; in the second, you feel huffy and resentful. The fondness isn’t the cause of the offer (if it were, you would still feel it even if your help isn’t needed), it is the result of its acceptance.

So, if you want to feel your heart full of love, be of service to others. If you want to be loved, let them help you.

I had imagined when I started the post that I would go on to discuss its implications for choral directors, but I’ve gone on quite long enough for one post. Another day.

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