A healthy relationship is one where both people in the relationship give and both receive. There is a safe and open exchange of ideas, feelings, and thoughts and all perspectives are considered and valued. There is also the freedom to respectfully challenge, confront and strengthen one another.
Psychologists agree that relationships are difficult and the right thing to do may not always be instinctual but at the same time, maintaining a strong bond between you and your partner is incredibly rewarding. It’s never too late, or too early, to learn the abilities that make up relationship competence.
Especially during these challenging times, where social isolation, home schooling, household chores, work pressures and anxiety are putting additional pressure on couples. The ability to function adaptively across all aspects of the relationship process, including figuring out what you need, finding the right person, building a healthy relationship, and getting out of relationships that are unhealthy constitutes relationship competence.
Relationship competence involves the development of four core skills. The acquisition of these skills has the capacity and capability to benefit all your relationships. These core skills are:
Insight is about awareness, understanding and learning. I, as a psychologist, would say that the development of insight will result in you having a better idea of who you are, what you need, what you want, and why you do the things you do. For example, if you’re in an irritable mood and get into a fight with your partner, insight will help you realise that it is not your partner who is at fault. You may realise that your irritable mood is actually the consequence of some other factor.
Realising when and how to say “thank you” after your partner does something kind for you, is insight. It makes both of you feel appreciated. Insight will also let you know your partner better and allow you to be more forgiving of their follies.
To bring insight into your relationships, you can:
* Accept your partner’s uniqueness: Appreciate your partner for their strengths and the things that make them unique. We have all had moments when we wished our partner was thinner, wealthier, more romantic, and so on. Take a look at your expectations and ask yourself how realistic they are. Unrealistic expectations lead to frustration, which is the main reason behind the failure of relationships.
* Devote a few minutes a day to connecting: Most couples think they talk to each other all the time. But, how often do you talk about things that deepen your understanding of each other? Happy couples talk to each other frequently and they know a lot about their spouses in four key areas: friends, stressors, life dreams, and values. Set aside 10 minutes a day to talk to your partner about anything other than work, family, the household, or the relationship. This simple change infuses relationships with new spirit and life.
* Get to know each other’s friends and families: People tend to be happier when their spouses have good relationships with their families. Research states that couples who accept (not necessarily love) each other’s friends, and make efforts to get to know them, are likely to be happier than couples who have separate friends and family lives.
Having worked with over 10,000 couples, I’d like to ascertain that mutuality is about knowing that, in a relationship, both people have needs and that both sets of needs matter. With mutuality, you’ll be able to recognise your partner’s needs and convey your own needs in a clear and direct fashion. Let’s say you have to go to a really stressful work event, and you’d like your partner to be there with you. You might say: “You know, this is going to be stressful for me. I’d really love for you to be there. Is there any way you can clear your schedule to come with me?” Recognising that your partner’s schedule is just as important, and setting aside time to accompany you would require them to make adjustments, displays mutuality in your relationship.
To bring mutuality into your relationships, you can:
* Become a caregiver: One of the three things couples need for a happy relationship is support (the other two needs are reassurance and intimacy). Men often like to give instrumental support. It is the kind of support that fixes or solves a problem. Women often like to give emotional support, which is empathetic listening and constructive feedback. Find out what type of help your partner really wants first, and then give it to him or her, often and consistently. Neglect can put a damper on a relationship. Which is why, it is important that we ask our partners about what they want. So when you notice any differences in your partner’s behaviour, ask them: How are you doing emotionally and physically? What are your wants, needs, or expectations? Do you feel happy, tired, etc. and can I help in any way?
* Support and rely on each other: A great way to do this is by taking the time to understand your partner’s plans, ambitions, and goals, and finding ways to encourage them. Supporting your partner in their plans and goals will help you understand them better as a person, and will bolster their emotions. Let your partner rely on you to encourage them, and look to them for support as well.
* Ask your partner questions, rather than making assumptions: If your partner is behaving or speaking in a way that bothers or confuses you, do not leap to a conclusion about what their actions mean. Instead, ask them, directly and politely about whatever is concerning you. Minor misunderstandings (like “I thought you said left!”) to major misunderstandings (like “Were you flirting with her?”) can cause stress, frustration, turmoil, and worst of all not feeling heard or understood. Over time, if a person continues to not feel listened to by their partner, distance takes over. Misunderstandings, simply defined, are when two people’s perceptions collide. Your partner thinks of the situation in one way, and you see it in another. So don’t assume they can read your mind and don’t assume you know what they meant or are feeling, ask them instead. This, over time, will help you better understand how your partner works emotionally, and increase empathy and trust in the relationship.
* Maintain mutual respect and believe in their abilities: Couples who have mutual respect, believe in each other’s strengths and have enough faith in each other to know when to step back and let them handle something on their own. This, much talked about subject is called ‘Giving Space’ with trust and respect. Respect also means that, while we may not always agree with our partner/s, we choose to trust them and put faith in their judgment. This trust can be built over time as your relationship progresses and you learn more about each other. Respect in a relationship is reflected in how you treat each other on a daily basis. Even if you disagree or have an argument, you are able to respect and value each other’s opinions and feelings by fighting fair.
3. Emotion regulation
Emotion regulation is about regulating your feelings in response to things that happen in your relationship. Being a psychologist for over 25 years, I would say that the goal of emotion regulation is to keep your emotions calm and to keep things that happen in your relationship in perspective. We need to develop the ability to manage moments where you might worry or snap. It is an important skill to have in all of your relationships—romantic and platonic—because it enables you to tolerate uncomfortable feelings while also maintaining self-respect and a commitment to your own needs.
Try these to bring emotion regulation in your relationships:
* Find a healthy way to communicate with each other: Share the positives and negatives of your day with each other. Keep a concern/worry time and call it solution time. Good communication means checking in regularly to find out what stressors are rearing in your partner’s life in a way that is agreed upon by both of you. And it means learning how to fight fair—no name-calling, shaming or bringing up everything that’s bothered you in the past, in a single argument.
* Forgive your partner when they upset you: Treat your partner with the same patience and respect that you would like to be treated with, and forgive them when they offend you. Holding grudges and records of the offence will only create suspicion and mistrust in your relationship. And don’t expect forgiveness to happen overnight. Sometimes, it can take several nights, weeks, or even months.
* Talk openly and vulnerably with your partner: Openness is crucial for every relationship. Building emotional walls weakens our relationships. It’s important to be emotionally vulnerable with your partner; be honest, share your sincere feelings, hopes, and concerns. To start a vulnerable conversation, you can say things like “I’ve been having a hard time lately and it’s a struggle to get through the day; can I talk to you about it?”, “I’m worried about the direction that our relationship is heading in. Can I talk to you about us?”, “I feel like I’m not where I want to be in my career. Do you mind if I open up to you about this?”
* Have patience with each other: In any relationship, people will make mistakes and annoy one another occasionally. When these situations arise be patient with your partner, give them space to make mistakes and grow from them. Rather than jumping in with an angry response, try saying, “What you said yesterday hurt me, but I’d like to hear your side before I reach a conclusion.” You could also say, “You may not have realised that you offended me; I’d like to explain why I feel the way I do.”
What is intimacy? As a complex and nuanced experience, intimacy can mean different things to different people. Some people describe an intimate connection as one in which they feel safe, close, and loved. However, how they reach these feelings of security differs from person to person—some require physical touch and others are more responsive to words. In general, intimacy means deeply understanding another person and feeling understood by them. Two people in an intimate relationship have looked into each other’s souls. To bring intimacy into your relationships:
* Do random acts of kindness often: Small gestures that say I’m thinking of you are essential to keep the relationship bond strong. Hand holding, touching or midday messages are all small ways of showing affection and they remind your partner that you still love them. Research shows that the accumulation of small gestures has a bigger impact on couple happiness than grand, less frequent gestures.
* Change and grow together: Your relationship is a living thing and it needs nourishment to grow and develop. The best way to nurture it, is to infuse it with change. Introducing change into relationships is known to be a key ingredient to couple happiness. The changes can be small, but they have to upset the routine enough to make your partner sit up and take notice. Switch roles: If he always makes the dinner, you do it. Or interrupt routines: do something fun together, like visiting a museum or a tourist spot nearby. Or try something new: Take a zumba class together, or go on a meditation retreat.
* Fall in love all over again: Spontaneous dates are great, but the truth is that we’re busy and we often don’t make time for our partners. Keep your love relationship healthy with a once-a-week date—dinner out, a movie, a drive, a comedy show, couples’ yoga—whatever. Take turns planning it.
* Keep it light: Laughter is a spiritual practice and it acts as a happiness medicine. To keep your relationship from slipping into a rut, you need to balance the rational aspects of your partnership with the fun parts. In the process of getting through life’s everyday challenges—don’t forget to play. As research says that a playfulness quotient enhances happiness. Try to rediscover the pure delight of playing a game, acting childish in the rain, watching a silly movie, dragging her/him onto the dance floor, and so on.
* Look at the big picture: Don’t waste each other’s energies on things that don’t matter. It’s easy to let the day-to-day concerns drown out the pleasurable, fun parts of being together. Maintain your relationship health by focusing on long-term goals and permanent aspects of your relationship, like: Things that first attracted you to your partner, fun activities that you and your partner have done together, long-term goals and plans for your future, ways in which you and your partner have grown closer, and ways in which you can continue to grow closer.
* Be physical with your partner: Although healthy physicality in a relationship will often include sexuality (which should develop in a way comfortable and fun for both partners), physical contact can be much more than sexual acts. Even the slightest physical touch can show affection and dedication and makes a relationship feel fresh and exciting. You can try some simple ideas like these:
- Hold your partner’s hand.
- Put your arm through theirs when you’re walking together.
- Rest your head on their shoulder when watching a movie.
- Make direct eye contact while you’re talking with your partner.
Harriet Lerner said, “An intimate relationship is one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way.” So in this lockdown, let’s celebrate ourselves and our partners. Let’s make use of these techniques and skills to cultivate and maintain healthy and beautiful relationships!