3 Rules for Building a Strong Relationship

As a psychologist, I hear about people’s relationship struggles almost every day. Sadly, by the time people make it to my office, the relationship has often deteriorated too much to salvage.

But occasionally, I get to witness couples who really turn things around in a powerful way. Whether it’s recovering from infidelity, navigating a sudden financial stressor, or some other major life change, I’ve seen enough examples to realize this:

Dramatic improvements to the quality of your relationship are possible with the right approach.

What follows are 3 principles or rules I’ve observed in couples who manage to build, maintain, or rebuild a healthy and strong relationship.


1. Give feedback assertively

Of course, strong relationships are always built on honesty. But here’s the thing: there will never be true honesty in the relationship if one or both partners feels like they can’t speak their mind candidly, especially about difficult or painful issues.

For example, one partner wishes their sex life was more active and creative but feels too embarrassed to bring it up. Or both couples understand that their current spending habits are unsustainable but each feels too ashamed to bring it up.

In both cases, the problem is a lack of assertiveness. Assertiveness is the willingness to speak your mind in an honest and respectful way, especially when it comes to big issues.

People who are assertive have the courage to give feedback and ask for what they want even if they feel scared or embarrassed. People who are assertive are also willing to firmly say ‘no’ to something they don’t want, capable of setting healthy boundaries and enforcing them.

At the end of the day, assertiveness is about the willingness to simply be yourself with your partner.

And while this often isn’t easy—especially after years or decades of hiding and masking your true preferences—becoming more assertive and giving your partner honest feedback about what you really want more of and less of in the relationship is essential.

Happy, strong relationships are honest. And honest relationships come from partners who have the courage to communicate their wants and needs assertively, with candor and respect.

2. Take feedback constructively

Of course, giving assertive feedback is only one side of the coin—for a relationship to thrive, both partners must become skillful at receiving feedback too. I use the word “skillful” very deliberately. The ability to take feedback well—especially tough feedback—is very much a skill you can learn with practice. And the key is to get better at managing your defensiveness.

Anytime a partner gives us feedback on how we can be better it hurts because it implies we’re not doing as well as we could be. This is natural. The key to taking feedback well is to find ways to not get caught up in your own defensiveness and insecurities so that you can listen well and really understand your partner’s feedback.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Validate your own imperfection. If the critical feedback is genuine, it will hurt. That’s okay. Have some self-compassion: Remind yourself that you’re not perfect and happy relationships are not about perfection—they’re about growth and the willingness to adapt and evolve to meet each other’s needs. Remind yourself that it’s natural and okay to feel hurt, and it’ll end up hurting a lot less.
  • Use reflective listening. Reflective listening is a deceptively simple technique for better communication. When your partner is giving you feedback, reflective listening means that you echo back key points they’re making. If your partner says, “We tend to do the same old thing all the time in sex” you might respond by reflecting back, “it sounds like you think our sex is getting a little stale or repetitive.” Not only does this ensure that both of you are on the same wavelength (a surprisingly hard thing in many difficult conversations), it also ensures that the feedback giver feels heard and understood—which is usually what they really want.
  • Monitor your self-talk. Self-talk is that little voice in our head narrating our life to us as it happens. But how we narrate the events of our lives has a huge impact on how we feel emotionally. Which means when you’re in a tough situation like taking sensitive feedback on a big issue, it’s important not to let your self-talk go wild and start catastrophizing, personalizing, or generally going to extremes. Hard conversations are hard enough without the extra burden of shame and frustration that comes from irrational or overly-negative self-talk. To take feedback constructively, focus on your partner’s story, not your own.

The ability to take feedback constructively and respectfully, without getting overly defensive, is key because it builds trust.

When you trust each other to take feedback well, it makes it easier to give it assertively. And when couples are giving and taking feedback constructively, every relationship problem becomes far more solvable and a lot less painful.

3. Make a plan to be better

This is the step that’s truly rare, but incredibly powerful. After being given feedback, it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that you want to make a change or do something differently—you need to make a concrete plan to execute on those changes:

  • If your spouse points out that your sarcasm really bothers him, don’t just “try to be less sarcastic.” Put a sticky note on your car dashboard to remind yourself to watch out for sarcasm each day when you get home from work.
  • If your partner asks you to spend more time with the family on weekends, set a reminder in your phone to call your golf buddies and discuss changing your regular Saturday morning golf game.

These are tiny examples, of course. But even small specific plans are far more valuable than mere good intentions.

We’re all busy and even important commitments tend to slip through the cracks without a reliable plan for implementing change. But creating a simple, concrete plan is remarkably effective for actually following through on your best intentions. And when you do, the amount of trust and confidence in your relationship will soar.


All you need to know

You can build or rebuild a strong relationship by adhering to three simple rules:

  1. Give feedback assertively.
  2. Take feedback constructively.
  3. Make a plan to be better.

They aren’t easy of course, but will practice and patience, they can create a healthy, loving, and strong relationship between any couple.

13 Comments

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Thank you, Nick. I believe you are on target with this advice and I have been married 25 years. Love your articles. Merry Christmas!

You continue to offer thought-provoking perspectives on real issues and then provide clear and practical advice to navigate through them.i so appreciate your work and your willingness to share it with us. It matters.

Relationships can also be killed by too much assertive feedback.
John Gottman studied relationships in a lab for 25-30 years and one of the things he found was that most couples have about 10 major points of argument that they are unable to resolve. The success of the relationship comes to depend on how well they can navigate the relationship WITHOUT ever solving those 10 issues.
Another thing he found was that there are four relationship killers — criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Your essay hits on one of them — defensiveness — and aptly describes needing to be open to feedback. But on the other hand, too much feedback can begin to creep into the category of “criticism” — which is one of the relationship killers.

Thanks for the feedback, Heather. Assertiveness is a tricky term because it’s often defined pretty differently by different people.

As someone who recently came through a serious ‘road block’ with my partner of 11 years, I found it very easy to allow that ‘self talk’ to catastrophise what was going on. I wish I had seen your article a lot sooner. I could have saved myself a lot of angst, sleepless nights and tears. Thank you for your honesty.

Though I’m not married, practicing these principles in everyday relationships would make it easier in an intimate relationship.

Great tips Nick, I would add, respect each other. If we don’t respect our partner and always humiliate their weaknesses instead of focusing on a positive attitude, the relationship turns bad. I see many couples who don’t respect their spouse and this shows up even when they talk to friends and colleagues.

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