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The Power of Positive Regard

3 strategies for maintaining connection with partners, friends, or family.

Key points

  • Positive regard is a combination of accepting someone completely and supporting them unconditionally.
  • We can show positive regard by leading with curiosity, accepting our partners, and being our best selves.
  • Positive regard can make healthy relationships stronger, but it must be balanced with accountability.

In my most recent work, I have been collecting data about what makes people feel safe in their relationships. Specifically, we asked the members of couples to tell each other stories about a time they felt safe with their partner. The analysis of these stories is ongoing, but what seems clear from an initial review is that most participants focused on the feeling of emotional safety rather than physical safety. Feeling safe meant being able to be themselves and feel accepted, especially during difficult times.

Therapists have been building relationships with their clients based on this type of acceptance since the 1950s. Carl Rogers articulated six conditions that must be met in a therapeutic environment to cultivate growth and change in a client. Among them is a concept called “unconditional positive regard,” which means accepting and supporting the person regardless of what they say or do during the session.

Although I am not a clinician, I see potential for using this idea outside of the therapy room. I see it in play—with adjustments—as a feature of healthy personal relationships. Life is messy and difficult, so we need the people around us to be rooting for us, showing us compassion, and giving us the benefit of the doubt. Below are three strategies for showing positive regard in your relationships with romantic partners, friends, or family.

1. Lead With Curiosity

In any given situation, we have a choice to approach our partners with curiosity or judgment. We can come in hot with accusations of wrongdoing, or we can come in cool asking what happened and exploring the context of the situation. For example, let’s imagine your partner went out for the night with friends and came home late without communicating with you. Using positive regard would guide you toward asking questions like, “You were out so late that I was worried. What happened? Are you OK?”

When asked calmly, these questions give a partner a chance to explain without being defensive. Questions draw a person into conversation rather than pitting one partner against the other. Even if a tough discussion about expectations and trust needs to happen, it will begin from a calm, productive place.

2. Accept Who They Are

In a previous blog post, I wrote about choosing a partner who has flaws you can tolerate. I think we can expand that here to focus on truly accepting those flaws as part of the whole package your partner presents. You don’t have to specifically love that your partner dislikes holding hands (when you like to hold hands), but you can accept that this is just part of who they are—and loving them means letting them be who they are.

Although we have the capacity to grow and change over the course of our lives, core aspects of our personality, worldview, and preferences are quite stable. In an interesting twist, Rogers argued that unconditional acceptance is how people feel safe enough to change and evolve. In other words, when we let our partners just be themselves, they may actually have a greater capacity for growth.

3. Embody the Best Version of Yourself

Unlike in the therapy room, when we decide to approach our romantic partners with unwavering positive regard, I think we make an implicit deal. The deal is that your partner is going to accept you—flaws and all—on your best day and your worst day. In exchange, it’s your task to be the best version of yourself as often as you can. It means putting effort into how you talk to your partner, how you compromise, and how you share the work of life with them. If you’re going to give each other a safe place to be your whole, complicated self, you need to be self-aware about the things you can do to make life a little easier for your partner.


In therapy, positive regard must be unconditional to be effective. In relationships, it may make more sense to think of positive regard as “unwavering.” Positive regard can function as our default setting, while still being conditional. For example, we should not maintain positive regard for partners who repeatedly betray our trust, overstep our boundaries, or engage in cruelty or manipulation. Positive regard has the potential to make healthy relationships stronger, but it must be balanced with accountability to work.


Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95–103.

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