As a psychologist, I hear a lot of complaints from my clients about their romantic relationship partners:
- Why does she always have to be so critical?
- He never follows through on what we talk about.
- She’s always trying to control me.
- I wish he would make more time for us.
- She’s always focused on the kids and never has time for me
- It’s always in one ear and out the other.
And I totally get it. Relationships are hard. And romantic relationships are especially hard, in no small part because there’s so much at stake.
After all, it’s one thing to shake off a passive-aggressive comment from a co-worker but another thing entirely to do it when it comes from your spouse. You don’t have to live with, cook with, clean with, raise kids with, vacation with, shop with, sleep with, do yard work with, and spend the rest of your life with your co-workers!
On the other hand, one of the really cool things about being a therapist is that from time to time I get to witness first-hand some amazing examples of strong, thriving romantic relationships.
For example, in a recent therapy session, I found myself close to tears as a client explained how supportive and encouraging her husband has always been and how much she appreciates the fact that, no matter what, she always feels like he’s got her back and gladly tries to support her in any way she needs, without complaint or expectation.
Wow! Something to aspire to, right?
Over the years working as a therapist, I’ve made it a point to notice and study what makes for a thriving, long-term romantic relationship like the one above. What are the ingredients that make them so successful?
While I don’t have all the answers, by any means, I have noticed 3 common themes or principles that most people in a really happy, thriving romantic relationship seem to follow.
In the rest of this article, I’ll try to illustrate these 3 core principles of strong romantic relationships and then describe 6 key skills that flow from them. Skills we can all work to develop in order to strengthen any of our own relationships, but especially our romantic ones.
PRINCIPLE 1: Giving Feedback Assertively
The first thing I’ve noticed about really successful romantic relationships is that both partners were willing and able to speak their minds when they want something to change or be different.
In other words, they are assertive about their wants and needs for themselves and the relationship. This helps the relationship grow in a healthy way and not stagnate or devolve.
Although most people associate assertiveness with aggressiveness, what it really means is that you speak and act in a way that is both honest to your own wants and needs but also respectful of others.
Assertiveness has two basic parts, both of which are essential skills for people who want their relationship to thrive:
- Asking for what you want
- Saying no to what you don’t want
While it seems simple, honestly and respectfully asking for what we want and saying no to what we don’t want can be one of the hardest things to do in a relationship, especially in a primary romantic relationship.
Briefly, let’s walk through each of these skills to get a better idea of what they look like and how to develop them in the real world.
Skill #1: Ask for what you want.
Asking for what we want in a way that’s both honest and respectful can be surprisingly difficult, mostly because we’re afraid of how our partner might respond and how we’ll feel as a result:
- If I mention wanting to try a different restaurant for date night, he’ll get defensive and angry, then the night will be ruined.
- If I ask for more sex, she’ll think all care about is superficial physical stuff.
- I really want to put my daughter in that new arts program, but I know my husband would be hurt if we pulled her out of his alma mater.
Notice that the key fear behind all of these statements is an imagined reaction of another person in the future that leads to an imagined negative feeling state. In fact, by far the most common formula for a lack of assertiveness is the following:
Saying X will probably lead to somebody feeling Y which will probably make me feel Z. Therefore, in order to avoid anyone feeling bad, I won’t say what’s on my mind or ask for what I want.
There are a lot of reasons this is a problematic belief to live by, but here’s the most damaging one in the long run: You will start to feel resentful of the other person. This resentment then will lead to either you inhibiting that resentment and becoming anxious or depressed or lashing out in anger or passive-aggressive communication.
If you think you need to work on improving your ability to ask for what you want, speak your mind, and generally be more assertive, the key is to start small and experiment.
Choose something relatively minor to be more assertive about—something that produces a little anxiety, but not much—and practice being assertive in that area repeatedly until your anxiety starts to lessen. Then, pick something a little more challenging and repeat the process. In other words, start building confidence in your ability to act and speak assertively in progressively more challenging ways.
For more on how to get better at being assertive, this book is excellent:
Skill #2: Say no to what you don’t want.
In many ways this is simply the flip side of the previous skill: Just like it can be difficult to ask for what we want assertively, it’s often hard to say no to what we don’t want assertively:
- I don’t really want to watch the game, but it’ll be better for everyone if I just go with the flow.
- She always gets mad when I say I don’t want to hang out with her friends. I just need to suck it up.
- I’m already really stressed out this month, and the idea of hosting Christmas Eve is terrifying, but my husband loves having everyone over. He’d be so disappointed if I said no…
Getting better at saying no is difficult for largely the same reasons as asking for what we want—we worry about other people and how they might feel. So we decide to absorb more stress rather than stick up for ourselves.
But there’s another reason saying no is especially difficult: Over time, we train people to expect us to always say yes. This means that even if you successfully say no to someone once, they’re likely to push back even stronger the next time, using guilt-tripping, for example, as a way to get you to say yes.
The key to overcoming this dilemma is to learn how to set effective boundaries and train people to respect our wishes in the long run. And as usual, starting small is key.
To begin setting better boundaries, follow these 5 steps:
- Pick an area of your relationship where you chronically say yes even though it’s not something you want to do at all. For example, if you really dislike violent war movies, you might want to draw a boundary on watching them. Which means that anytime your partner suggests a violent war movie, you put up and enforce your boundary and say no.
- Clarify your rationale for your boundary. Take some time alone to write down why you’re setting your boundary and why it’s important to you. For example, you might note that violent war movies are especially disturbing to you because they often lead to nightmares and anxiety.
- Clarify your alternatives. Have a good plan for what you will do after saying no. If your partner wants to watch a war movie, for example, identify a handful of other activities you could do while they watch the movie—listen to podcasts, go to the gym, read, etc.
- Communicate your boundary, your rationale, and your alternative plan to your partner in an honest, respectful way. Be open to your partner’s feedback, but don’t be afraid to stick to your guns.
- Anticipate obstacles and preempt them. If you know that a new war movie is coming out in theaters soon, anticipate that your partner will ask to go see it and have a plan ready. You might, for example, suggest that instead of seeing it together, they could go see it with a friend and you could see another with one of your friends. And then everyone could meet up after for food or drinks.
It’s difficult to set boundaries in the short term. But relationships that have clear, respectful boundaries in place tend to make things easier and less stressful for everybody in the long run. When everybody’s wishes and preferences are clear, it’s easier to respect them.
If you’d like more ideas and strategies for being assertive and setting boundaries, check out this guide I wrote:
PRINCIPLE 2: Receiving Feedback Constructively
As we discussed above, assertiveness is essential for a healthy relationship to grow and prosper, but it’s not sufficient. For assertiveness to result in positive change in your relationship, it has to be received well by your partner. And conversely, you have to be willing to receive theirs as well.
As important as it is to speak our minds assertively, it’s equally important to listen constructively.
This is the second key ingredient I see in thriving relationships: Both partners are able to receive feedback well.
Of course, this helps tremendously for solving specific problems and issues. But perhaps more importantly, taking feedback well promotes trust within the relationship.
When you listen well and take feedback constructively, you’re telling your partner that they can trust you with anything. And the other way around.
While it’s a truism that healthy relationships depend on trust, taking feedback well is the best way I know to actually build trust in your relationship.
With that in mind, let’s look at two skills we can all build that help us to take feedback constructively in our romantic relationship.
Skill #3: Reflective Listening
Another truism in relationship advice is that it’s important to be a good listener. And it is, indeed, good advice.
The problem is, what really makes someone an especially good listener? And how do you become one if you’re not already?
While there are no doubt dozens of elements that go into listening well, there’s one specific skill anyone can learn that will quickly transform them into at least an above-average listener: Reflective Listening.
Reflective Listening means that you periodically repeat or “reflect back” what the other person is saying. And yes, often literally!
- Your Partner: I just can’t believe my boss said that about me in front of the whole office! It was so embarrassing! You: Wow, it sounds like that was really embarrassing for you.
- Your Partner: I just felt like you didn’t care. You seemed totally oblivious as I described what happened. You: Seems like you really thought I just didn’t care about you at all.
- Your Partner: I just got so pissed off when he cut me off! I know I shouldn’t have but I couldn’t help snap back at him. You: That must have been frustrating for you to be cut off like that.
Now, I get it: This sounds dumb.
Why say back to someone what they just said? They know what they just said!
And it’s true, they probably do. But what they don’t know—or feel—is how well you heard them.
When we make it a habit to periodically reflect back and restate what our partner is saying, it builds trust and confidence that we’re really paying attention and listening. And very few things are as genuinely pleasurable and meaningful as feeling like you are being truly heard and listened to.
An added bonus is that probably more often than we like to admit, there’s actually a miscommunication between what our partner is saying and what we’re hearing. And we’re much more likely to catch these if we’re in the habit of reflecting back what we’re hearing.
So, even though it feels strange and awkward, give Reflective Listening a shot. As a start, practice on people you don’t have a super close relationship with first—the Uber driver complaining about their last customer, Uncle Harry telling you the same old story about walking uphill both ways to school in the snow when he was a kid. Then work your way up to your spouse or partner.
The best book I’ve ever read on effective communication and reflective listening just so happens to be about communication with kids. But it applies just as well to adults:
Skill #4: Managing defensiveness with better self-talk
It doesn’t matter who you are or how good a listener and partner you think you are, we all get defensive from time to time—especially in the context of a romantic relationship when our partner says something critical or challenging.
Defensiveness means that, in response to feeling hurt, we react instinctively by defending ourselves against the perceived threat or accusation:
- Your Partner: Will you please remember to hang up your towel instead of leaving it on the floor. You: Well, I always have to remind you to put your empty soda cans in the recycling…
- Your Partner: It really bothers me when you’re sarcastic like that. You: I wasn’t being sarcastic… it was just a joke. Loosen up a little!
- Your Partner: I’d really appreciate it if you were a little more affectionate when we’re out on a date. You: I am affectionate. You’re just being needy.
For obvious reasons, defensiveness is not a great response, especially to a genuine request or critique. But how do we inhibit our natural, almost automatic, tendency to get defensive and take feedback well instead?
While I’m sure there are lots of strategies out there, there’s one that seems to be especially helpful in my experience working with people to improve their communication and relationships: managing your self talk.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, the feelings behind defensiveness (anger, guilt, anxiety, etc.) are caused by our initial interpretation of what our partner said and what it means. That is, how we talk to ourselves in our head about what someone says is the true cause of feeling defensive.
As a result, if we want to get less defensive and improve our odds of listening well or responding constructively, a great strategy is to identify and change our self-talk in these types of situations.
Here are two guides that explain in much more detail how to actually get better at noticing and then modifying your negative or unhelpful self-talk:
- Cognitive Restructuring: The Complete Guide to Changing Negative Self Talk
- 10 Types of Negative Self-Talk (and How to Correct Them)
PRINCIPLE 3: Create a System for Change
So far we’ve covered why the ability to give and receive feedback is vital to the health and strength of a romantic relationship. But ultimately, neither of those matter much if we don’t have a consistent, reliable plan for implementing and following through with the changes we would like in the relationship.
The final common factor I see in strong romantic relationships is that both partners are committed to implementing change and have reliable systems for doing that.
Here’s an example:
A client of mine—let’s call him Teddy—struggled for years to actually follow through with requests from his wife about things in their personal life—everything from picking up kids from school on time to remembering anniversaries.
And his inability to follow through on he and his wife’s best intentions was causing a lot of harm to their relationship. So much so that his wife had threatened to move out if he didn’t get some help.
Almost as soon as I met Teddy, I realized that he and his wife were already doing pretty well in terms of the first two principles mentioned above: They were both fairly assertive and tended to take feedback well.
Teddy’s problem was that he wasn’t very good at remembering to do what he intended to.
Happily, things quickly changed for the better for Teddy and his wife as a result of a pretty simple mindset shift: Teddy started treating his personal life and romantic relationship with his wife the same way he treated his professional life. Which mostly boiled down to one thing: He started putting tasks and appointments down in his calendar and setting reminders for himself.
Teddy realized that the reason he never missed meetings at work and always got important projects done was that he had a consistent and reliable system for keeping him on track. Why not do the same thing in his personal life and with his relationship with his wife?!
Following Teddy’s example, let’s look at two specific skills that we all can build into our romantic relationship that will help us actually follow through on all those good intentions we set.
Skill #5: Make a specific plan for your own changes
When you’ve identified something you’d like to change in your relationship—or when you’ve taken your partner’s assertive feedback well—the final step is to actually do it. And do it consistently if it’s a recurrent thing.
The mistake most people make at this stage is to rely on two very unreliable capacities—memory and willpower.
Suppose your spouse has mentioned to you that he would appreciate more physical affection from you. The mistake most of us would make is to rely on our memory to remind us to be more physically affectionate and then rely on sheer willpower to do it even when it’s difficult or awkward.
This is a mistake because beginning any new habit requires a lot of awareness and is likely going to be uncomfortable or foreign in some respect. The trick, then, is to develop a system that A) reminds us to do the thing we intend to do and B) makes that thing a little easier.
Back to our physical affection example:
If my spouse asked that I be more physically affectionate, I might set a reminder in my phone to go off every evening at 8:00 PM. That way, if I had forgotten to go out of my way that day to be affectionate, I would still have time to do it before the end of the day.
I would also anticipate why it might be difficult and prepare some strategies for overcoming those difficulties ahead of time.
So, if being physically affectionate with my partner feels awkward, I might remind myself that there are many things I do naturally now that felt awkward when I first started—tying my shoes, playing piano, creating pivot tables in Excel.
So, whenever you decide on a new intention for making a change in your relationship, be sure to create some system or routine for remembering to do it (usually this takes the form of a reminder) and anticipating obstacles and how you might overcome them.
For more practical suggestions on building a better system for sticking with good intentions, read this:
Skill #6: Make a general plan for revisiting progress on changes
While setting reminders and anticipating obstacles are essential strategies for getting started with new habits and changes, when it comes to maintaining our best intentions for our relationship, nothing is more important than tracking.
Just like businesses have regular meetings and reports to check in on the overall progress of new initiatives, the best relationships have some system for checking in on the overall health of the relationship and tracking whether things are moving in the right direction.
In other words, after recognizing the need to make a change and deciding on a specific plan for doing so, it’s important to have a general plan for maintaining those changes.
One client of mine explained how she and her husband have a ritual where they go out for a nice dinner every year on their anniversary. This is pretty common. But what she went on to describe was fascinating…
She explained that before their glitzy night out to celebrate their anniversary, they always went for a hike on their favorite trail in the mountains. And while they were on their hike, they discussed the health of their relationship, what their future goals and aspirations were, and how they each thought they were doing on making progress toward their goals.
My client has repeatedly mentioned that this is probably the single best thing she and her husband do for the health of their marriage. And she credits it with being responsible not only for maintaining their marriage, but actually strengthening and enlivening it over time.
Such a cool idea, right?!
So, as a final step toward ensuring the strength of your romantic relationship, consider a few ways—both big and small—that you might create a regular habit of checking in on the relationship and your mutual goals and aspirations.
Whether it’s an annual hike like my client, or a weekly “check-in” on Sunday afternoons, some kind of general plan for revisiting progress toward your relationship goals is key.
For more on tracking habits and good intentions over time, consider a technique like The Seinfeld Method.
Summary and Key Points
The health of a romantic relationship depends on three key principles:
- Giving feedback assertively. This means the ability to speak and act in a way that is both honest to our own wishes and values but also respectful of our partner.
- Receiving feedback constructively. In order for assertiveness to be possible, we have to be able to receive assertive requests and feedback constructively.
- Creating systems for change. Even after identifying and agreeing upon shared goals and positive changes for our romantic relationship, we must create and maintain systems and routines that help us to execute and implement those good intentions for change.
In order for these three principles to become reality, and for our romantic relationship to flourish as a result, there are 6 skills we can all learn to help us get there:
- Ask for what you want. Assertively asking for what we want requires training ourselves to tolerate difficult emotions, both in ourselves and our partners.
- Set and enforce boundaries on what you don’t want. Being willing to set and reinforce boundaries means that we stand up for our values and help train our partners to respect them as well.
- Reflective listening. When we learn to reflect back what our partner is saying, we imbue the relationship with trust and confidence.
- Managing defensiveness with better self-talk. The best way to ruin healthy communication is to give in to defensiveness. And the best way to avoid defensiveness is to improve the quality of our self-talk.
- Making specific plans for personal change. It’s not enough to intend to change; we must learn to create reliable and consistent plans that help us follow through on our best intentions for change.
- Making a general plan for tracking the health of the relationship. By creating regular “check-ins” about the state of the relationship, we ensure that we never veer too far away from our mutual goals and aspirations as a couple in our romantic relationship.