It’s easy to take for granted the person you’re closest to and care about the most. The extreme familiarity that an intimate relationship carries with it means that you feel so comfortable with your partner that you don’t feel you have to put on any airs. These airs can sometimes be useful, however, if it means you give your partner the same courtesy you would to a stranger. You wouldn’t interrupt someone you don’t know very well, be critical, use coarse language, or be intrusive and interfering. You dress up if you’re going to be meeting someone for the first time, and attend to your grooming so you will be perceived in a socially acceptable manner. Why, then, do you think you can violate the social niceties with your partner?
Research on happy couples suggests that being able to show your true self does contribute to a good relationship as it reflects the closeness of your feelings. However, there may be boundaries to exactly how much you should throw aside the rules of social convention. For example, if you’re in a terrible mood because of something that happened at work, is it a good idea to let your frustrations out on your partner? If you spent all day stifling your anger toward your boss or coworkers, why is it then okay to vent all of that unpleasantness out on the person who you love, and who loves you? We can learn how to avoid these common traps thanks to the work of Western Carolina psychologist Andrew M. Carnes (2017), who investigated the role of work stress on satisfaction among married couples to explore the “boundary conditions” in which strain on the job would translate into marital conflict at home.
In the Carnes investigation, 139 working couples completed measures of marital satisfaction, ability to cope with stressors, amount of family-work role conflict, and degree of perceived role overload. Additionally, they completed a measure of “political skill,” or the extent to which an individual knows how to navigate social relationships. As defined in this study, political skill consists of networking ability, social astuteness, ability to influence others, and being able to appear sincere. Carnes found that political skill played a role in helping to alleviate the stress associated with work-family conflict, particularly for men in relation to their wives. Thus, treating your partner with as much savvy as you treat your coworkers, or others in general, seems to be beneficial in managing this key area of a couple’s relationship.
We can use the Carnes study's findings as the basis for these 10 tips on how to be a nicer person with the person you love the most:
1. Make an effort to understand your partner’s needs.
Political skill, as shown by Carnes, helps men, at least, get along better with their partners insofar as conflict can detract from a couple’s satisfaction. Taking a page from the political skills playbook means that you look at your relationship with your partner as worth your time and energy.
2. Respect your partner’s boundaries.
You would never intrusively ask an acquaintance to share highly personal details. Your partner may have some areas that he or she wishes to keep private. Don’t go where you’re not invited.
3. Be courteous.
There is no reason to be rude or crass with your partner, even though you feel that you can be “yourself.” Maintain at least some of the social graces with your partner that you would when you’re out of the house, including table manners and overall demeanor.
4. Be careful with the words you use.
That political skill index did include social astuteness, or knowing the right things to say to others. You don’t have to edit yourself quite as heavily in your closest relationships, but it’s still important to phrase your communication in a way that isn’t hurtful or disrespectful.
5. Remember that the relationship is a two-way street.
You would like to, and probably indeed expect, that your partner will treat you with kindness and respect. Again, returning to the concept of political skill, part of getting along with others is being able to see yourself in relation to them. How do you want your partner to see you? Presumably, you prefer to be treated with kindness and a modicum of courtesy, and therefore you should demonstrate the same level of tact.
6. Recognize that your partner may be as stressed as you are.
Work-family conflict in terms of role obligations and overload are true competitors with your ability to enjoy your partner. It may feel natural to think of yourself as the stressed-out one, but it’s possible your partner comes home with a similar level of angst. If you can be a sounding board for your partner’s frustration, this can go a long way toward both of you feeling able to take on the outside world. It doesn’t hurt to offer help on days or weeks that are particularly stressful for your partner.
7. Don’t make assumptions about what your partner is feeling.
That social awareness Carnes studied includes being able to read people well, and to do this, you need to maintain an open mind toward what other people are experiencing. You wouldn’t pretend to know what a stranger is thinking, and even though you know your partner very well, be ready to be surprised at what you learn.
8. Take a look in the mirror.
It’s great to feel that you don’t have to put your public face on while at home, but every once in a while your partner may appreciate your getting dressed up, even if it’s just a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s particularly important that you do so if the Sunday afternoon includes a visit from your partner’s family. Showing respect to the other people your partner cares about may be just as important as showing you care about how your partner sees you.
9. Assume your partner is being truthful.
Are you skeptical of what your partner is doing when you’re not together, or do you feel that your partner sometimes covers up for a mistake or for spending too much on clothes? This makes it difficult for your partner to feel accepted and can lead to your being perceived as untrustworthy yourself.
10. Stop yourself before you say something you’ll wish you could take back.
Once some words are said, they can’t be unsaid, although it’s easier to apologize to your partner than to someone you don’t know that well. Still, if you practice your political skills in the home, you’ll avoid making too many of those uncalled for or overly harsh remarks.
Getting along with your partner requires that both of you navigate and negotiate some highly personal and difficult areas. Practicing niceness can help make your important relationships that much more fulfilling and enjoyable for both of you.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Carnes, A. M. (2017). Bringing work stress home: The impact of role conflict and role overload on spousal marital satisfaction. Journal Of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 90(2), 153-176. doi:10.1111/joop.12163