The skills you need to sustain a romantic relationship are not that different from those you need for other areas of your life: family, friends, the workplace, and even how you deal with pandemics and politics. In this post I’ll discuss a few key skills we can all work on, whether we’re single or not. Whatever our age or experience, refining skills such as empathy, open-mindedness, responding to “bids” and not being too critical are lifelong tasks.
Feeling good about yourself
If we feel comfortable with who we are and what we stand for, it’s much easier to be open to new ideas, back down when we’re wrong, apologise, compromise, and laugh at ourselves. One study showed that building up self-esteem made people more open to changing their beliefs and attitudes. Another showed that accepting our own imperfections makes us more likely to accept the imperfections of others. I sometimes get my clients to develop a “brand” for themselves: a set of values, quirks, personality traits, needs and passions – and I tell them it’s OK to admit to vulnerabilities. Feeling secure about yourself means you are less likely to feel threatened or criticised when you are challenged or asked to do something differently.
Research also shows that being able to accept influence from others is a predictor of relationship success. Are you able to say “That’s a good point” or “I hadn’t thought of it like that” rather than always finding a way to pick holes in someone’s argument?
Choose your battles
This classic advice for parents dealing with teenagers applies to so many other situations. We have to get the right balance between the positive and the negative not just in our perceptions of our relationships but also in our interactions. For example, it’s so easy to focus on losses (like the way your date doesn’t have as smart clothes as your ex) rather than gains (like the way he’s so much more energetic than your ex). Or it can be easy to notice the way your new girlfriend occasionally misses out apostrophes rather than the way you love chatting and playing silly games with her. Even if there seem to be a lot of negatives in an existing friendship or family relationship, we can still train ourselves to think more positively. (See here for how.)
The golden rule for all relationships, romantic or otherwise, is: you have to let some things go if you’re going to build a positive relationship. For those of us who are “attention-to-detail” types, it can be hard to do this. When you’re proofreading a document or checking some code, you have to address all the imperfections. But that doesn’t work in a relationship.
You don’t have to say it just because it’s true
Context and timing is everything. If your partner is talking to you about how they’re coping with the loss of a parent, don’t waste the opportunity to connect by pointing out that they haven’t put the bins out. If your teenager is finally opening up to you about their stress levels, don’t waste that precious moment by asking them to tidy their bedroom. If you’re a white privileged person with one opportunity to contribute to a discussion about Black history, don’t waste your chance to support it by pointing out that Africans traded in slaves too. If your co-worker has worked really hard on a project and there is one typo in a tweet, don’t waste the chance to acknowledge their hard work and creativity by just pointing out the typo.
All these things might be true and even important, but you don’t have to say them. Prioritise the relationship over the need to assert just one of many things that are true. (You can read more about our tendency to focus on the negative here.)
Respond to bids for connection
John Gottman, a relationship coach whose work is very much based on sound evidence, talks a lot about bids. A bid is a reaching out for connection. Your child asking you to look at their drawing is a bid. Your partner asking you to come into the garden for a minute to admire the sunset is a bid. Your ex-wife phoning you to moan about your teenager not doing their revision is a bid. Someone you manage at work calling you to talk about a difficult co-worker is a bid. Your date texting you with a funny video is a bid. Your mother calling you to complain that you haven’t been round to fix the tap is a bid.
We often reach out to others about one thing when we really want something else – whether it’s support, attention, love, reassurance, understanding, human contact or validation. We may not even realise we are doing it. Often it is disguised as irritation or even anger: a toddler hitting a parent is really just a desire to feel safe and to connect (like the one in this incredibly moving video); a ten year old shouting “You’re so annoying!” at their parents is really a cry for help to manage powerful new emotions.
So often, we are too focused on something else (usually on an electronic device) to respond. But we can never get back those precious opportunities to connect. Let’s learn to recognise the bidder’s underlying need and respond in a gentle, kind, loving, supportive or empathetic way. We may feel aggrieved that we are not being appreciated at that moment (maybe they’ve forgotten all the other efforts we’ve made for them) but we can try to put the other person’s emotional needs first for a short time.
And when we build up emotional capital with someone, they become more open to our needs next time.
Whether you’re already in a relationship or not, try to spot patterns across your relationships and identify what you can work on. It might be:
- becoming more open-minded when you’re asked to change
- choosing your battles and letting more things go
- training yourself to focus on the positives
- not saying something just because it’s true
- recognising and responding to bids
And if you are single, get ready for your next relationship by building up these relationship skills in other areas of your life.