Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships
Intimacy, security, respect, good communication, a sense of being valued. These are some of the things that most people would agree make for healthy relationships. And researchers would agree, too. There is a large body of literature on romantic relationships that has identified the features of healthy relationships, and the list I just provided contains many of them. Researchers also agree on what makes for unhealthy relationships – things like fighting so much that you just can’t work things out; not being able to go to your partner for support when you need it; contempt, criticism, hostility, violence. When these problems happen in relationships, they can cause significant unhappiness. They can lead to the end of relationships and divorce, and they can literally make people physically and emotionally sick. This is why it is so critical that people have healthy relationships. But there is a problem: how many people know, I mean, really know what to do on a day-to-day basis, to create healthy relationships? My point is this: we may know what a healthy relationship looks like, but most people have no idea how to get one, and no one teaches us how to do so.
We need to teach people how to have healthy relationships. Now, you know when we typically do so? After it’s too late. It is called couples therapy. I do couples therapy, and it can be a wonderful thing. But many people come to couples therapy with so many ingrained problems and patterns that they just can’t change. It’s too late. You know when else we try to teach people how to have healthy relationships? Right before they get married. It’s call premarital education. And this is a good idea: teach people how to have a good relationship while they are still happy, presumably. And it can work.
But in my opinion, it’s still too late. Why? Because people have already selected the person they want to commit their life to. What if they selected poorly? No amount of premarital education can make up for a bad partner choice. So the ways we have tried to teach people how to have healthy relationships have been limited, because they fail to address three important things: genuinely knowing what you want and need in a partner and a relationship, selecting the right person, and developing and using skills right from the beginning. I don’t mean the beginning of any particular relationship.
I mean the beginning-beginning, like as soon as possible. We need to teach people, especially young people, how to have healthy relationships. Now, towards this end, my colleagues and I have developed a skills based model of relationship functioning that we believe can help people create the things that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the behaviors that lead to unhealthy ones. We’ve identified three skills – insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation – that form the basis for what we call romantic competence. Romantic competence is the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects of the relationship process, from figuring out what you need, to finding the right person, to building a healthy relationship, and to getting out of relationships that are unhealthy. I’ll tell you more about the skills in a minute, but first, let me say that we didn’t just make this up out of the blue. We identified the skills based on a thorough review of theory and research.
And the skills really represent the commonalities across the major theories and research findings on healthy relationships. And because they represent the commonalities, we think they really can help people with all the different parts of the relationship process, and with all different people – whether people in a relationship or not. So let me tell you about the skills. The first one is insight. Insight is about awareness, and understanding, and learning. So with insight, you’ll have a better idea of who you are, what you need, what you want, why you do the things you do. So let’s say you are being really snappy to your partner. With insight, you might notice or realize that it’s not that your partner is doing anything, but actually you’re really stressed out at work. What you really need is to relax a little bit, so it doesn’t bleed out over into your relationship. Insight will also let you know your partner better. Let’s say your partner shows up late for a date. With insight, you’ll know why.
For example, maybe your partner is late for everything. It’s nothing about you or the relationship. That’s just who your partner is. With insight, you’ll be able to anticipate the positive and negative consequences of your behavior. For example, you’ll know that if you send that nasty text, it is not going to go well. Maybe you’d better make a phone call instead. With insight, you will be able to learn from your mistakes in ways that allow you to behave differently in the future. So maybe you’ll recognize that you’re the kind of person who tends to jump in really quickly – you get wrapped up in the romance of things – and then things don’t go well.
So you might be able to say, “Well, you know what the next time I’m just going to take things a little more slowly and not repeat the same mistake. And with insight, you’ll have a better understanding about what’s really right for you in a relationship. Maybe you’re the kind of person who really needs a monogamous relationship. You are not OK with your partner seeing other people. Or maybe you’ll realize it’s just the opposite, that you’re not ready to settle down, and you need a partner who is OK with that. So that’s insight. The second skill is mutuality. Mutuality is about knowing that both people have needs, and that both sets of needs matter. With mutuality you’ll be able to convey your own needs in a clear direct fashion that increases the likelihood that you’ll get them met. Let’s say you have to go to a really stressful family event, and you’d like your partner to be there with you. You might say directly: “You know this is going to be stressful for me. I’d really love for you to be there; you’ll be a really good buffer for me.
Is there any way you can clear your schedule to come with me?” With mutuality, you’ll be willing to meet your partner’s needs as well. Let’s say you know that your partner really likes to go to the gym first thing in the morning, it makes your partner feel better the rest of the day. Mutuality will let you be willing to support your partner in this, even though you’d really rather have your partner stay home, in bed with you. And mutuality also lets you factor both people’s needs into decisions that you make about your relationship. So let’s say you get a great job offer that you’d like to take, but you know it means you will to have to work more, and you know how important it is for both you and your partner to spend time together. With a mutual approach, you might say, “You know, I’d really like to take this job, it’s really important to me, but I also am concerned about us spending time together.
If I promise to protect some time for us, will you be OK with me taking this job?” That’s a mutual approach to relationships. The third skill is emotion regulation. And emotion regulation is about regulating your feelings in response to things that happen in your relationship. With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to … keep your emotions calm and keep things that happen in your relationship in perspective. So, you might think: “Oh, my goodness. This is a disaster! This is the worst thing ever! How am I going to handle this?” With emotion regulation, you’ll think: “You know what, I can handle this. This is going to be all right. There is a way to deal with this.
I’m going to figure this out. Everything is going to be OK.” With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and not act out on them impulsively, so you’ll to be able to think through your decisions more clearly. So let’s say your waiting for your partner to text you back. That text isn’t coming; you’re getting really anxious; you’re checking your phone every two seconds. With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to tell yourself, “You know what? Calm down. The text is going to come. I don’t need to check my phone every second; I’m just going to put it away and focus on the task at hand.” And with emotion regulation, you’ll be able to maintain a sense of self-respect and commitment to your needs, even when bad things happen in your relationship. So let’s say you have a breakup. You’re feeling really depressed; you’re really missing your partner. With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to let yourself know that it is OK; that, yeah, you’re going to feel depressed, but you’re going to get over it and get through this. If you beg and plead to get back together, you’re not going to feel good about yourself, and you don’t even want to be in a relationship that wasn’t good for you.
So insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation. I believe it’s people’s ability to use the skills on a day-to-day basis that lets them have healthy relationships. So let me give you an example of how this works. The other day I was talking to someone, and she said that when her partner asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she told him she didn’t want anything. So guess what? She didn’t get anything. And she got really angry, and they had a big fight. Why? Because she really did want a present, she just didn’t want to tell him; she just wanted him to somehow know. It is called mind reading. It is a terrible idea; it never works. Had she been using the skills, insight would have let her know herself well enough to realize that she really did want something, and if she didn’t get it, she was going to be mad.
Insight also would have let her know that her partner was the kind of guy who was just going to take what she said literally. Mutuality would have let her really ask for what she wanted, directly and clearly. And emotion regulation would have let her deal with any feelings she was having that were getting in the way of doing that. So maybe she was feeling kind of anxious: What would he think if I asked for what I needed? Or maybe she was feeling guilty, you know.
She knows they are saving for a big trip, and she maybe thought that he would think that she was kind of greedy or something. So if she had used the skills, she would have been able to say, “You know what? I know we are saving for that trip, but I really like that necklace that we saw the other day, and it wasn’t that expensive.” He would have gotten it for her. She would have felt respected and valued. He would have been happy. They would have felt more intimate. This whole birthday gift thing would have gone well, instead of ending in a fight that could really damage their relationship. Now, this was just an anecdote. We have data to support this as well. I’ve been studying romantic competence, the ability for people to use insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation, among young people.
In one of our studies, we looked at 13- and 14-year-old girls, early adolescent girls, and we found that girls who were more romantically competent felt more secure in their relationships. They felt comfortable being close to people, they could trust people, they weren’t worried about being rejected. Girls who are more romantically competent reported fewer depressive symptoms, they had better mental health. They also were more positive about their expectations about marriage in the future; they were more optimistic that it could go well. Girls with greater romantic competence were engaging in more typical romantic activities for their age, things that were normative, like dating and flirting and affectionate behaviors like hugging and kissing.
And girls who were more romantically competent were engaging in fewer … atypical, sexual activities, like sexual intercourse, which can be considered pretty risky for a 13- and 14-year-old girl. So, even at an early age, 13 and 14 years old, when these girls mostly were not even in relationships, the more romantically competent they were, the more adaptive relational functioning they were showing, and the better mental health they were showing. We see the same things among young adults, 18 to 25 years old: More romantically competent men and women feel more secure in relationships. They also report making better decisions, they can see the warning signs when things aren’t going well and make conscious decisions with confidence. They’re also better at seeking and providing support to their partners. So, they are more willing to ask for what they need and use what their partners give them.
And they are better at providing helpful support when needed. And this isn’t just what they told us, we actually observed them doing this in our laboratory, where we asked them to talk with one another about a personal problem. Young people who were more romantically competent also were more satisfied in their relationships, they were happier. And again, they reported fewer depressive symptoms and also fewer anxiety symptoms. So overall, being romantically competent at a young age is associated with greater, more adaptive relationship functioning and greater individual well being. And this brings me back to my point that we need to be teaching people how to have healthy relationships. So, like I said earlier on, we may know what a healthy relationship looks like, but most people have no idea how to get one, and no one teaches us how to do so. And this is a problem. We need to help people genuinely know what they want and need in a relationship. We need to help them select the right partner.
We need to help them make good decisions and deal with the challenges that relationships bring. And we need to help them build and use skills right from the beginning. This is what the notion of romantic competence is all about. It’s all about using insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation to reduce the behaviors that lead to unhealthy relationships, like fighting, and poor support, and hostility, and criticism, and contempt, and violence. And create the things that lead to healthy relationships, like intimacy, security, respect, good communication, and a sense of being valued. And wouldn’t all of our relationships benefit from this? I think they would. Thank you. (Applause).