Recently I was thinking about how I used to behave in relationships, before I became a psychotherapist and learned about emotions and attachment. I was tough on guys. When my relationships were going smoothly, it was easy to act nice and be understanding. But during times of conflict, like when my man wanted to hang with his guy friends instead of me, watch a sports game on television when I wanted his attention, or when he left a mess in the living room, I took his actions personally. Didn’t I matter? What about me? I got angry and sometimes I said mean things, which I almost always later regretted. I’d speak in extremes, “You never do _______________!” Or, “You always do ___________________!” My training as a psychotherapist for couples and individuals taught me the value of positive communication. What I learned (unfortunately twenty years later) changed my personal life.
Romantic relationships are challenging for everyone. No matter how great couples look on Facebook, no matter how many loving, hugging, kissing photos you see of your friends, no intimate relationship is trouble free. That’s because of two facts that are in complete conflict with each other: All of us have inborn needs for love, care, and attention, which when not met trigger survival strategies of fight/flight in the brain; And, people in relationships cannot realistically meet all of the needs of their partner. Inevitably, there will be times when we feel unloved, uncared for, unappreciated, hurt and angered. That just is.
Research by The Gottman Institute showed that how we handle conflict is a major predictor of relationship longevity. There is much we can learn to tip the scales in favor of a lasting and loving relationship. We can learn about the brain, emotions, and how to communicate skillfully. And we can pick a partner who possesses certain qualities.
The qualities help ensure you and your partner will be able to talk through relationship problems, especially when the going gets tough. I even recommend putting these requirements on your dating profile page to weed out the ones not interested in healthy communication. When I suggest this to my patients, they think I’m kidding. But I am not. Here’s an example:
PARTNER WANTED: Who values empathy, humor, and understands the importance of talking to work out problems. Must have prior knowledge of how the brain and emotions work in intimate relationships or be willing to learn. Must have a willingness to discuss relationship values.
Below are 5 qualities to look for in a partner.
1. The capacity for empathy.
Empathy is the ability and willingness if put yourself in the skin of another person and imagine how THEY feel (which will be completely different than what you feel especially in times of disagreement). Without empathy, what stops a person when they are angry from hurling insults or doing other mean things? You want someone who cares NOT to hurt you. Without a capacity for empathy, compassion and kindness may not be at the forefront of your partner’s mind.
When relationships are strained, humor can diffuse a struggle and transform a moment from bad to better. For example, Wayne knew just the right time to use humor with Jenna. He could tell when her mood shifted for the worse. Jenna all of a sudden became critical of Wayne, nitpicking things she usually didn’t mind. He had empathy and could sense she was irritated with him. At those times, instead of getting defensive or withdrawing, two strategies that never help, he would say to her with a gentle smile on his face, warmth in his eyes and a goofy voice, “Are you trying to pick a fight with me?” It stopped Jenna dead in her tracks and forced her to contemplate his question. “Am I trying to pick a fight?” she asked herself. “Yes, I guess I am.” His humor made it possible for her to become aware and own her anger. Now that her anger was conscious, she could figure out what was bugging her and talk about it with Wayne directly. She would not have been able to doing that were it not for his lighthearted humorous question. It helped her feel safe.
Humor is not always the right approach. But when it works, it works well.
3. The willingness to keep talking.
Two people who love each other and who are motivated to stay together have the power to work out all conflicts. Working out conflicts, however, takes time, patience, and specific communication skills. Partners have to find common ground.
Sometimes it takes a while to solve a problem because there can be many layers to discuss until both people get to the crux of their wound and feel heard. Talking involves clarifying the problem, understanding the deeper meaning and importance of the problem, making sure each partner understands the other’s position, sharing the emotions that the issue brings up for each person, conveying empathy for each other, and brainstorming till a fair solution is found. Problems have to be talked out until both people feel better.
4. Understands the basics of how emotions work.
During strife, emotions are always running the show. Emotions are hard wired in all of our brains the same way. They have to be to ensure human survival. Fear makes us to run before our thinking brain even knows we are afraid. Without fear, we’d long be extinct, eaten by prey. No matter how smart or clever we are, we cannot prevent emotions from happening, especially in times of conflict and threat. It is only after emotions ignite that we have some choice about how to respond. Some people react immediately, indulging their impulses. That is how fights escalate. Others, who fair better, pause and think before they act. That is the goal.
Without an understanding of emotions, your partner won’t understand why you are reacting and he might criticize you for your feelings. This makes matters worse as it sends a “danger” message to the brain triggering fight/flight responses. Alternatively, we want someone who won’t take our moods and gripes too personally; someone who instead of reacting will get curious and ask what has upset us. We want someone who will listen without getting defensive. We want someone who knows that sometimes there is nothing to fix and that listening patiently is a powerful tool for couples. And, we want a partner who demands to be treated in the same understanding and caring way.
Honoring emotions does not mean you take care of you partner’s emotions at the expense of your own, for that leads to resentment. Honoring your partner’s emotions also does not mean you allow yourself to be abused. It does mean you care when your partner is upset and try to minimize damage.
For example, you can question your partner on why he leaves dirty socks in the living room in many ways. If you question him with a soft tone in your voice, while you look him in the eye with a curious, as opposed to hostile expression on your face, you are far more likely to get a better response than if you attacked him for being a slob. We need to work hard NOT to activate primitive fight/flight responses in our partner. Education on emotions helps us stay motivated to take the time and effort (and it does take effort) to notice what we say and how we say it.
5. Understand The Importance of Establishing Ground Rules.
In the beginning of a relationship, things usually go smoothly. But when the courtship period ends, differences and disagreements start to come up. Before conflicts emerge, it is a good idea to talk about establishing a set of ground rules for disagreements and arguments.
Ground rules are the rules for how to fight fairly. A main goal is to stay respectful and connected while working through conflicts. You can discuss in advance of a disagreement specific ways to help each. For example, you could talk in a calm voice versus shouting. In setting ground rules, you teach each other what to say or do that makes things better, not worse. Your partner learns how NOT to make matters worse for you; and you learn how NOT to make matters worse for him. Because each of you is the expert on yourself, you teach each other what you need when you feel bad, sad, angry, and the like.
Everyone has different triggers. An eye roll can send one person over the edge while an eye roll has no affect on the other partner at all. So a ground rule might be DON’T ROLL EYES. Actions like: walking out on a person in the middle of a discussion, threatening breakup, making your partner jealous, diminishing each other with insults, and using physical aggression are all examples of highly threatening moves that trigger fight/flight reactions in the brain. No good ever comes from that.
My Ground Rules
- We don’t insult each other.
- We don’t walk away in the middle of a discussion without stating our intention to return and resume talking.
- We don’t shout.
- We don’t dismiss each other’s feelings.
- We don’t threaten to leave each other.
- We keep talking, either in the moment or at a later date, until we both feel better.
- If we cannot find a way to resolve a problem, we get help before deep and lasting resentments build.
How wonderful would it be to know exactly what your partner needed when he felt upset so you could do something to help him? How wonderful would it be if when you felt upset your partner knew just what you needed and gave it to you for comfort? How wonderful would it be to know how to handle disagreements before they happen? When you look at each other in the midst of a fight wondering, ‘What was it that I once liked about you?” you will be happy you discussed this moment before. Maybe you can at even take a pause from the fight and laugh together or take pride that you prepared for your conflict by sharing, “Well, here we are, just like we discussed!” Hopefully that brings some relief to the misery that a fight with a loved one brings.
Finding these 5 qualities in a partner may not be easy. You will have to be somewhat vulnerable to talk about these qualities. Summon the belief that you are worth it and you deserve to be in a mutually satisfying relationship. The 5 qualities above will foster that goal.