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5 Subtle Signs of a Great Relationship

3. You know just how to soothe their anxiety.

Key points

  • Understanding a partner’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to address those weaknesses, is important for a healthy partnership.
  • Partners can benefit from identifying how to soothe one another’s anxieties.
  • These factors are often more important than “checklist items” such as physical attraction or shared interests.
Victoria Roman/Unsplash
Source: Victoria Roman/Unsplash

Some strengths of loving relationships are obvious. These subtle ones are important too.

1. You can complete this sentence: My partner is good at ___ but not good at ___.

For example, a friend recently told me, "(Name) is good at keeping secrets but not good at feigning interest."

Why is this subtly important? Everyone deserves a partner who knows them very specifically. To be understood, you first need to be known.

When relationships are going well, we tend to judge our partners a bit more positively across the board than is objectively warranted. However, perceptive, tuned-in couples are also generally quite good at assessing each others' relative strengths and weaknesses.

2. You find creative relationship solutions based on point #1.

The same friend told me her spouse wanted to find out the sex of their child before the child was born, but she didn't. What did they do? Her spouse found out and kept the secret, which she trusted, knowing her spouse is a good secret keeper. However, my friend knew her spouse wouldn't be able to feign interest in choosing a girl's name if their child was a boy, and vice versa. So, they decided on a girls' name and a boys' name, before either of them knew the sex. Problem solved!

Why is this subtly important? In great relationships, partners find creative solutions based on each individuals' strengths and weaknesses, and their combined knowledge of these.

3. What does your partner need to soothe their worst anxiety?

My own partner gets very occasional panic attacks (a fact she doesn't mind me sharing.) As is typical, the fear of these occurring is one of the worst aspects, even if years pass between attacks.

There are two practical things that I know soothe the worst of her anxiety. First, she fears not getting an aisle seat on long flights, so I know to book these. Second, she fears times when she can't get my help. For example, if I'm doing a live interview, she worries she might have a panic attack while I'm doing the interview. So, I tell her she can always interrupt me, no matter what, knowing that's enough to ensure it will never actually happen!

In an old-fashioned view of relationships psychology, that type of accommodating a partner's anxiety might be seen as co-dependent and not desirable. However, modern relationship psychology is better at recognizing that part of relationship trust is always being accessible to each other. Depending on others is part of being human.

4. When is your mere presence enough that your partner feels supported?

Everyone has a vulnerable side of themselves. Part of being in a relationship is showing that vulnerable side to your partner. However, in a lot of scenarios, we don't need a lot of active help to feel supported. Even very minor behaviors can communicate support.

Research has shown that the support people desire differs a bit, largely depending on someone's attachment style (I've included a lot more about this in The Healthy Mind Toolkit.) People who are anxious about attachment need to know their feelings don't overwhelm their partner. When they feel distressed, they want their partner to communicate that they're a team. The anxious person wants to know they don't need to manage alone. In contrast, people who have what's termed an avoidant attachment style need to feel their autonomy is encouraged and supported. People who are securely attached often want a mix of these.

If you think about it, the types of support I've mentioned can be communicated in very subtle ways. A person with an anxious attachment style might really want to be picked up from the airport after an exhausting trip or long flight. Even if an Uber ride home would be more logical, the simple gesture of picking them up might help them feel loved and wanted.

On the other hand, an avoidant person might feel more supported by their partner letting them return home by themselves, take a shower and decompress, before any major conversation starts. When they're facing a tricky decision, a person with an avoidant style might feel best supported by a partner who says, "Let me know when you've thought it all through and decided." That communicates trust in their autonomy, but also a level of interest in the person's dilemma. The specifics of what someone finds supportive will vary highly from relationship to relationship, but what's important is a "fit" between the support one person feels equipped to provide, and the support the other person feels soothed by. In great relationships, people identify the Venn diagram of that. (The popular concept of "Love Languages" conveys this somewhat but whether or not you like gifts, for example, isn't the critical element.)

5. You know which minor celebrity your partner would most want a birthday message from.

A lot of us would love a President, billionaire, Oscar-winning actor, or another icon, to call to wish us happy birthday or congratulate us on an accomplishment. But, dropping down a level, what minority celebrity would your partner love to hear from? What reality TV star, YouTuber, author, broadway actor, professional crush, etc would your partner most like a personal message from? What would give them a thrill? What type of message would be most meaningful to them?

Why is this subtly important? It shows how specifically you know your partner. It shows how much you know about their interests, including the fun, quirky aspects of what's meaningful to them.

When people are seeking a partner, they sometimes make a checklist of what they desire, e.g., someone tall, who shares their interests, and who wants the same number of children they do. However, mature, successful relationships typically become about more subtle factors, like knowing, accepting, and supporting each other in very specific ways.

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