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9 Ways to Make Your Partner Your Best Friend

2. Do everything you can to make them feel listened to.

Key points

  • Powerful internal pressures compel us to criticize our partners, despite the damaging toll it takes on our relationships.
  • It's possible to validate what you disagree with, since your partner's perspective is just as meaningful and authentic as your own.
  • Making yourself available to your mate when they're having a hard time is critical if they're to feel that you have their back no matter what.
ArtHouse Studio/Pexels
Source: ArtHouse Studio/Pexels

Decades ago, esteemed couples therapist Harville Hendrix asserted that the three things essential to a happy relationship were safety, safety, and safety. Such a (real-estate-inspired) pronouncement might well sound redundant or overblown. Yet it accurately highlights what's crucial in an ideal relationship.

Why feeling safe is imperative

So what, exactly, did Hendrix—and his life partner, Helen LaKelly Hunt—mean by "safety" in the classic, Getting the Love You Want (3rd ed.)?

Clearly, that term points to feeling emotionally safe in a committed relationship—the first step to feeling secure in it. After all, experiencing your mate as caring and respectful toward you and painstakingly scrupulous in discussing the areas of your life where you're most vulnerable, represent key aspects of both safety and security.

Not that an exemplary relationship doesn't require more than security, but without such backing, it can't possibly satisfy your (or your partner's) hopes and desires. You need your partner to confirm they can be depended upon both to understand and safeguard your well-being. That way, you'll not feel obliged to install safeguards yourself—to erect barriers, if not steel barricades, to feel safe from them.

Because of our survival instincts, we're driven to distance ourselves whenever we feel susceptible to attack, to extricate ourselves from the perceived threat. And such self-protection is incompatible with relational intimacy, sadly rendering our partner ineligible for the "best friend" status we fantasized about when we first committed to them.

Given the intimacy challenges we all face, how can we consciously cultivate a non-threatening relationship—which, frankly, may not come naturally to us? However indirectly, our efforts will necessitate learning how to honor not only our partner's limits but ours as well.

And that requires "taming" our self-interested, superiority-seeking ego and regarding our partner as our equal—appreciating them, in essence, as neither better nor worse than us. In many ways, a predominantly competitive relationship can't be a harmonious one. And without harmony, it can't be a trusting or intimate one either.

Becoming more conscious of tendencies that threaten your relationship

At the same time that Hendrix emphasizes the cardinal need for relational safety, he warns against the almost irresistible need to criticize your partner when their beliefs and behaviors differ from yours. What are the powerful internal pressures that—counterproductively—drive us to do this, despite the serious toll it takes on our relationship?

Although very few people would admit it, secretly, we'd like our partner to agree to be our clone. Even worse, something inside us can feel compelled to punish them for not being willing to "replicate" us—for wanting to be their own person and not feel under duress to "re-mold" their identity to better reflect our preferences.

From where exactly does this self-serving inclination to impose our predilections on our partner emanate? And more importantly, how do we move beyond this knee-jerk impulse to disparage them whenever their irrefutable differences make us uneasy? (And here, I'm not referring to differences that are undeniably bad, wrong, or immoral—merely to the blameless thoughts and feelings that separate them from us.)

The main reason we're often so hard on our mates is that we experience their differences as invalidating. And this reaction comes from a still-insecure child residing deep within us: a child too young to think objectively and so limited to evaluating things in binary absolutes. Comprehending the variables in a particular situation is simply beyond their capacity.

Their immature, black-and-white reasoning amounts to: "You're either with me or against me." And when that child part of us remains dependent on the other's concurrence to experience their viewpoint as legitimate, and that doesn't happen, we become anxious. Such situations tend to revive old self-doubts in the present, prompting us to feel frustrated, if not alienated, from our partner's inability or unwillingness to corroborate what feels so true to us.

As adults, we can recognize we're all different and possess the right to our own thoughts and feelings. But when never-resolved insecurities from the past get reactivated because our mate doesn't share our perspective, then—unless we can assure ourselves that this divergence is nothing to feel threatened by—we'll experience the urge to criticize them. As in, "We can't both be right—so if I'm right, you've got to be wrong."

And that deduction reveals our inner child's desperate, self-vindicating voice. If, however, we really want to make our partner our best friend, we need to instead follow the maxim, "Live and let live," thereby giving them the space to safely affirm their varying (but just as valid) viewpoint. And we can do this only after we've somehow succeeded in communicating to that scared, threatened child that—as the adult they eventually became—they now possess the capacity and authority to self-validate, and they no longer require someone else's permission to do so.

Constructing the emotional safety that will elevate your partner to best-friend status

Regrettably, space doesn't permit me the opportunity to elaborate on the nine points enumerated below as much as I'd prefer. By now, however, it should be fairly easy to recognize how each of these points characterizes what's necessary for couples to develop the security, trust, and respect requisite to an intimate union. And independent of how much the two of you may differ.

1. As you (like everybody else) want to be unconditionally accepted for who you are—and are not—so does your partner. Therefore, endeavor to give them what, personally, you want to get. Such generosity of spirit is contagious and will increase the likelihood that both of you will come to view the other as their best friend. What's crucial here is to learn to accept yourself unconditionally because that's indispensable for offering the same "courtesy" to them.

2. Do everything you can to make your partner feel listened to. If in the past, you've let your mind drift while they were addressing you, they may (by default) have begun to share themselves more with others than yourself. So cultivate the habit of looking at and paying close attention to them when they're speaking.

And be sure your subsequent response underscores your having thoughtfully attended to their words, tone, and manner. Otherwise, how can they be assured they're genuinely important to you, that you truly care about what matters to them?

3. Agree to disagree, and do it open-heartedly. If you allow your partner to express their views but only begrudgingly, they'll feel it—and the secure connection between you will be lost. As paradoxical as it may sound, it's quite possible to validate what you disagree with, for your significant other's perspective is just as meaningful and authentic as your own.

4. Replace judgmental criticism with tactful, modest requests. If you find some of your partner's behaviors annoying (e.g., cracking their gum), let them know that despite their not doing anything wrong, you find this or that behavior irritating, so you'd greatly appreciate their keeping this in mind. It would then be wise to add that if any of your habits annoy them, they should feel free to let you know, and you'll make a sincere effort to minimize or extinguish them.

5. If, on the contrary, you want a particular action from them or more of it (say, hugs and kisses, or doing the dishes), request this as well—plus asking them what desired behaviors they'd like from you.

6. Give your partner as much autonomy as they need. Sure, you may want a closer relationship with them, but that doesn't mean becoming dependent or enmeshed with them. So give them the space or solitude they require. And that should make your together time all the more valued.

7. Make decisions that affect both of you jointly. Even when you're not in accord with them, sympathetically consider their input—versus summarily dismissing it. This point relates to compromise, and the willingness to meet somewhere in the middle is a hallmark of congenial, cooperative relationships.

8. Regardless of what you're engaged in, put it aside when your partner needs comforting. Being there for them during such difficult times is critical if they're to feel that, no matter what, you have their back.

9. Play and laugh together. Few things strengthen a bond more than sharing various forms of merriment. For instance, be on the lookout for opportunities to giggle, chuckle, or indulge in hearty belly laughs together.

Methodically undertaking these steps should help reinvigorate the enamored feelings you experienced during courtship—when there was so much more "sweetness and light" than may be true today.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Facebook image: oliveromg/Shutterstock


Here are some earlier posts that dovetail with this one—of the 50 or so articles I've written on what's essential to successful committed relationships:

Seltzer, L. F. (2008, Sep 10). The path to unconditional self-acceptance.…

--------. (2010, Mar 17). Stop criticizing your mate: Relearning what you once knew.…

--------. (2010, Apr 28). How to optimize your relationship: The 70/70 compromise.…