- Without empathy, it's impossible for partners to understand each other.
- Working out conflicts with a partner takes time, patience, and skillful communication.
- Those who don't understand how emotions work will criticize their partner or react badly to their partner's feelings.
Recently I was thinking about how I used to behave in relationships—before I learned about the science of 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 guy wanted to see his friends instead of me, or watch a game on television rather than tend to me, or when he left his dirty socks in our 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 power and value of positive communication.
What I learned changed my personal life.
Romantic relationships are a challenge 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 core emotions of anger and sadness in the brain. Over time, we can defend against these needs in a variety of ways. But that doesn’t mean the emotions aren’t happening; we’ve just blocked them from conscious experience.
- One partner in a relationship cannot realistically meet all of the needs of the other.
Given these two facts, inevitably there will be times when we feel unloved, uncared for, unappreciated, hurt, and angered. That is not bad. That is not good. It just is!
Research by The Gottman Institute showed that how we handle our inevitable conflicts is a major predictor of relationship longevity. We can become pros at handling conflict. But, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, so we must pick a partner who will work with us to build a long and satisfying relationship.
Following are five qualities to look for in a partner. These qualities help ensure that you will be able to move through the tough times and even grow closer as a result. I would even recommend putting these requirements on your dating profile page to weed out those not interested in healthy communication. Here’s a sample:
PARTNER WANTED: Someone who values empathy and emotional intimacy, 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.
The 5 Qualities
1. The capacity for empathy. Empathy is the ability and willingness to put yourself in the skin of another person and imagine how they feel (which can be completely different from how you see and feel things). Without empathy, how do we understand each other? Without a capacity for empathy, treating you with compassion, kindness, and consideration will likely not be a priority for your partner.
2. Humor. When relationships are strained, humor can defuse 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 at things she usually didn’t mind. Wayne could sense that Jenna was irritated with him.
Instead of getting defensive or withdrawing, two strategies that rarely help, he would say to her with 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 of, 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 do that were it not for his humorous “invitation” to talk.
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 are motivated to stay together have the power to work out virtually all conflicts. Working out conflicts, however, takes time, patience, and skillful communication. Partners have to find common ground or be all right with agreeing to disagree.
It takes a while to resolve conflicts because there can be many steps to cover until both people 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, allowing for the emotions the topic evokes for each person, conveying empathy for each other, and brainstorming until a solution that feels right for both is found.
Problems have to be talked out until both people feel better.
4. Understands the basics of how emotions work. During strife, emotions run the show. Emotions are hard-wired in all of our brains the same way. No matter how smart or clever we are, no one can 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's how fights escalate. Others pause to think before they act. Thinking before we speak or act is best because it gives us much more control over the outcome of our interactions.
Without an understanding of emotions, your partner won’t understand you as well and she/he/they might criticize you for your feelings or react badly.
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—or at least strives for that. 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 your partner’s emotions at the expense of your own; that leads to resentment. Honoring your partner’s emotions also does not mean you allow yourself to be abused. It does mean that you care when your partner is upset and try to help.
5. Understands the importance of establishing ground rules. At 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 arguments.
Ground rules are the rules for how to fight constructively. The goal is to learn specific ways that you can help each other in the midst of a disagreement. For example, you can agree to talk in a calm voice versus shouting at each other.
In setting ground rules, the idea is to anticipate conflicts and arguments and rehearse how to do damage control. You do this before the fight because during fights neither you nor your partner will be rational or calm since you’ll be highjacked temporarily by your emotional brain. The goal is to stay respectful and connected while working through conflicts. Your partner learns how not to make matters worse for you, and you learn how not to make matters worse for them. 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 having no effect on the other partner. So a ground rule might be don't roll eyes. Actions like walking out on a person in the middle of a discussion, threatening to break up, making your partner jealous, diminishing each other with insults, or being physically aggressive are all examples of threatening moves that trigger primitive survival 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 remind each other that we love and care about each other even though we are angry.
- We don’t dismiss each other’s feelings.
- We don’t threaten to leave each other.
- A conversation isn’t over until both people feel understood and better. But it is OK to take a break as long as we return at a later time or day to resolve the conflict.
How wonderful would it be to know exactly what your partner needs when he/she/they are upset so you could do something to help them?
How wonderful would it be if when you felt upset your partner knew just what you needed for comfort and gave it to you?
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 will even laugh together or take pride in the fact that you prepared for this moment, 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 a partner with these five qualities may not be easy. And you will have to be somewhat vulnerable, summoning the courage to talk about these qualities. Hold on to the belief that you are worth it and that you deserve to be in a mutually satisfying relationship. Also, hold on to the fact that many people in the world want loving partnerships. These five qualities will guide you to finding your loving partner.
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