Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


6 Keys to Successful Intimate Relationships

Be a team, be generous, be realistic, and be appreciative.

Key points

  • The foundation of a solid intimate relationship is about focusing on several important skills.
  • The keys are changing the climate, solving problems, giving what you need, and having realistic expectations.
  • These solutions are about practice, being intentional, and breaking dysfunctional patterns.
Source: StockSnap/pixabay

In my almost 50 years of practice, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see where couples get into trouble. Here’s a quick list of top skills and behaviors that can make the most difference.

1. Change the emotional climate.

Many couples come to therapy thinking that if they can just get the other guy to change—control his temper, be more affectionate or reliable—they’ll feel better and hope that counseling will make this happen. There are two reasons this never works: One is that both are usually trying to do this—get the other guy to change—at their home or in my office. These conversations quickly turn into arguments over whose reality is correct or a power struggle over who will win out.

The other reason is that instead of trying to change the other—who’s to blame—they need to think about changing the emotional climate of the relationship, working together to reduce the tension, and breaking those dysfunctional and destructive patterns. Rather than a you versus me stance, think of you and me working together to solve a problem.

2. Solve the problem.

Now that you’re a team, the next obvious step is putting the problem to rest; easier said than done. What many couples do instead is make up after an argument or go to their corners to cool off for a couple of days. But they never circle back to the problem they were arguing about. Why?

Because they don’t want to start another argument. Here, they sweep the issue under the rug only to have it flare up periodically. As these unsolved problems accumulate, the distance between the couple proportionally grows. In ten or 20 years, their only safe topics will be the weather or the kids.

3. Give the other what you want.

If you want more affection, be more affectionate. If you want to argue less, start by controlling your temper. Again, it’s about changing the climate, stopping power struggles, and avoiding blink contests about who needs to step up first. Giving what you want makes you more likely to get what you need.

4. Don’t keep score.

Some couples do a good job negotiating win-win deals that break dysfunctional patterns and put problems to rest: I’ll try to do a better job of following through on what I say I will do; I’ll try to be more affectionate. Great. But they get into trouble by keeping score:

“I’ve been holding up my end of the bargain by taking out the trash every day this week, but have you stepped up and been more affectionate? No. The deal’s off.”

You now slip back into your old default behaviors; you feel justified in breaking the deal because you did your part—understandable, but don’t do it. Keeping score turns your relationship into a competition rather than a team challenge. Instead, put your head down, focus on your side of the equation, and do your best for a few weeks or months.

Now, stick your head up. If you feel that it’s unbalanced, that the climate hasn’t changed, bring it up calmly, adultly:

“I’ve been doing my best to follow through on things, and you agreed to try and be more affectionate, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Is there something we need to tweak, another problem we haven’t talked about?”

Rather than getting angry and resentful and returning to old behaviors, find the problem under the problem and tackle it together.

5. Have realistic expectations.

Will you find your soul mate who gives you all that you need? Possibly, but not likely. Instead, have more realistic expectations and evaluate your partner and the relationship based on whether or not the other person can give you the one, two, or three things you most need, not the top 30. Define and focus on those; realize that you’ll probably need to farm out your other 27 to others, but acknowledge that getting those top ones will hold your life together.

And along the same line, step back to acknowledge that you’re in a relationship with a human, not a robot, who has good and bad days just like you. The best you can do on their bad days is be empathic and supportive. No, you never want to tolerate abuse and be a punching bag for their discontent and need to push back or get out, but in ordinary life’s ups and downs, be willing to cut them some slack when they need it, just as you would want them to do for you.

6. Practice gratitude.

One of the strong points that Briana Wiest makes in her book 101 Essays That Will Change What You Think is that we can choose to be happy, and that path to happiness is gratitude. While you cannot directly control your feelings, you can control what you do. If you deliberately take time to notice and appreciate what’s good around you, what you can be thankful for—hence the practice rather than just catching it when you feel it—you can feel happiness. This is particularly important in our intimate relationships where the close rubbing of lives can so easily create heat and negativity. By appreciating and acknowledging the positive, we can keep the negative at bay. It’s also a great antidote to depression.

This is my list, a possible starting point for your own. As you reflect on your relationships, you may think of other ways of making your intimate relationships more intimate. The themes are problem-solving and generosity, putting problems to rest, giving the other guy a break, and having the skills and motivation to do just that.

This is about learning and practicing skills, not personality. Try them. It’s the best you can do.


Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing couple therapy. New York: Guilford.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today