Healthy relationships, the way it goes
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 to.
Theres a large body of literature on romantic relationships thats identified the features of healthy relationships and the list just provided contains many of them. Researchers also agree on what makes for unhealthy relationships, things like fighting so much that you just cant 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 its so critical that people have healthy relationships, but theres 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 its too late its called couples therapy.
Ingrained problems and patterns
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 cant change. Its too late you know what else we try to teach people how to have healthy relationships right before they get married. Its called premarital education and this is a good idea.
Teach people how to have a good relationship while theyre still happy presumably and it can workout in my opinion. Its 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 makeup for a bad partner choice.
So the ways that weve 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, in a relationship, selecting the right person and developing and using skills right from the beginning and I dont 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 relationship.
So towards this end, my colleagues and I have developed 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.
Weve identified three skills, Insight, Mutuality and Emotion regulation, that form the basis for what we call romantic competence.
Romantic competencies, 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.
Ill tell you more about the skills in a minute but first let me say we didnt 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 are in a relationship or not.
So let me tell you about the skill. The first one is Insight. Insight is about awareness and understanding and learning, so with insight youll have a better idea of who you are, what you need, what you want, why you do the things you do?
So lets say youre being really snappy to your partner, with insight you might notice or realize that its not that your partners doing anything, its actually that youre really stressed out at work and what you really need is to relax a little bit, so it doesnt bleed out over into your relationship.
Insight will also let you know your partner better, lets say your partner shows up late for a date, with insight youll know why for example, maybe your partners late for everything its nothing about you its nothing about the relationship, thats just who your partner is, with insight youll be able to anticipate the positive and negative consequences of your behavior. For example you know youll know that if you send that nasty text its not gonna go well maybe, you better make a phone call instead.
With insight youll be able to learn from your mistakes in ways that allow you to behave differently in the future so maybe youll recognize that youre the kind of person who tends to jump in really quickly.You get wrapped up in the romance of things and then things dont go well so you might be able to say, Well you know what, the next time Im just gonna take things a little more slowly and not repeat the same mistake and with insight youll have a better understanding about whats really right for you in a relationship.
Maybe youre the kind of person who really needs a monogamous relationship. Youre not okay with your partner seeing other people or maybe youll realize its just the opposite, that youre not ready to settle down and you need a partner whos okay with that. So thats insight.
Mutuality is about knowing that both people have needs and that both sets of needs matter. With mutuality youll be able to convey your own needs in a clear, direct fashion that increases the likelihood that youll get them met. So lets say, you have to go, to a really stressful family event and youd like your partner to be there with you. You might say directly.
You know this is going to be stressful for me, Id really love for you to be there. Youll be a good buffer for me. Is there any way you can clear your schedule all to come with me? With mutuality youll be willing to meet your partners needs, as well, lets 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 youd really rather have your partner stay home and in bed with you and mutuality also lets you factor both peoples needs into decisions that you make about your relationship.
So lets say you get a great job offer, that youd like to take but you know it means youre going to have to work more and you know how important it is for both of you and your partner to spend time together.
With a mutual approach, you might say, Id really like to take this job, its 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 okay with me taking this job? Thats a mutual approach to relationships.
The third skill is
Emotion Regulation is about regulating your feelings in response to things that happen in your relationship. With Emotion Regulation, youll 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 am going to handle this? With emotion regulation youll think You know what? I can handle this. This is gonna be alright. Theres a way to deal with this. Im gonna figure this out.
Everythings going to be okay with emotion regulation, youll be able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and not act out on them impulsively. So youll be able to think through your decisions more clearly.
So lets say, youre waiting for your partner to text you back, that text isnt coming. Youre getting really anxious, youre checking your phone every two second. With emotion regulation, youll be able to tell yourself, You know what, calm down! The text is gonna come.
I dont need to check my phone every second, Im just gonna put it away and focus on the task at hand and with emotion regulation youll be able to maintain a sense of self-respect and commitment to your needs, even when bad things happen in your relationship.
So lets say, you have a breakup, youre feeling really depressed, youre really missing your partner. With emotion regulation, youll be able to let yourself know, that its okay that yeah youre gonna feel depressed, but youre gonna get over it.
Youre gonna get through this. If you began and plead to get back together, youre not gonna feel good about yourself and you dont even want to be in a relationship that wasnt good for you.
So Insight, Mutuality and Emotion Regulation, I believe its peoples ability to use the skills on a day-to-day basis that lets them have healthy relationships.
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 didnt want anything. So guess what she didnt get anything and she got really angry and they had a big fight. Why because she really did want a present, she just didnt want to tell him, she wanted him to somehow know .
Its called mind-reading. Its 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 didnt get it she was gonna be mad.
Insight also would have let her know that her partner was the kind of guy who was just gonna 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 her way of doing that. So maybe she was feeling kind of anxious.
So what would he think, if I asked for what I needed or maybe she was feeling guilty. You know she knows, theyre saving for a big trip and she maybe thought that he would think that she is greedy or something, so she had used the skills she would have been able to say, You know what, I know were saving for that trip, but I really like that necklace that we saw the other day and it wasnt 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 fight that could really damage their relationship.
Now this was just an anecdote. We have data to support this as well. Ive 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 werent worried about being rejected. Girls who were 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 arent going well and make conscious decisions with confidence.
Theyre also better at seeking and providing support to their partners, so theyre more willing to ask for what they need and use what their partners give them and theyre better at providing helpful support when needed and this isnt just what they told us.
We actually observe them doing this in our laboratory, when we ask 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 competencies are all about. Its 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 of being valued and wouldnt all of our relationships benefit from this?
I think they would thank you.