Guys, do you want a better, healthier relationship with your partner? Use these 12 steps to improve your ‘relationship intelligence.’
By now most of us know there are multiple types of intelligence, and we’re also aware that emotional intelligence trumps the intellect when it comes to relationships. Because yes, men read relationship articles, too. We even buy self-help books. We even read …
But you may not know there is a subset of emotional intelligence that applies specifically to relationships and even more specifically to intimate partnerships. Let’s call it relationship intelligence.
And let’s dispel right now the myth that women are born with relationship intelligence and have more of it than men. They don’t. But because men have been conditioned to feel inadequate in this area and shown as bumblers in popular media, we have trouble trusting our instincts and tapping our innate relationship skills. So we often come across as under-confident and unsure of ourselves.
Guys, being a good partner is not difficult. You already have everything you need to bring your best self to a relationship. Because your best self is right there, inside you.
A word about the phrase ‘relationship intelligence.’ I didn’t coin it. There’s a book (from 1998), and a more recent article. But none of the available material distills the wisdom you need to navigate the most important relationship of your life into simple steps you can learn, practice, master, and post on your wall to remind yourself to keep doing them every day.
So here’s your simple 12-step guide to relationship intelligence.
1. Respect yourself. You thought I was going to start with respect your partner, but the truth is, self-respect comes first and is the foundation of every healthy relationship. No woman wants to be with a doormat, and if you don’t have a spine, you’ll be tagged as a ‘nice guy’ and relegated to the friend zone. Maintaining your boundaries is actually sexy, because it shows a woman you will respect hers too and also draw boundaries around your relationship. Make your personal growth and your self-care important. Don’t be afraid to say no. Make yourself a priority, and your partner will treat you as one.
2. Respect your partner. There are many ways you can show respect—and you have to show it, not just speak it. Listening is primary, and everything follows from tuning in, hearing your partner, and taking your partner’s needs seriously. The core of respect really is the golden rule of treating your partner the way you’d like to be treated. But you have to go beyond gold and embrace titanium. This means learning to avoid behaviors that come across as disrespectful to your partner, even if you wouldn’t find them disrespectful yourself. Don’t worry about figuring out what these are. Your partner will tell you. Your job is to listen, learn, and back up your knowledge with action.
3. Don’t prejudge. You may think you have the answer. You may be convinced you’re right. But there’s a chance you’re dead wrong. Unless you have a thing for dimwits, you chose your partner because this person is smart, so it makes sense to keep an open mind, be willing to see that you might be wrong, admit without reservation when you are wrong, and benefit from your partner’s good sense and wisdom. If you prejudge a situation, you won’t hear what your partner has to say, and you’ll frame your response based solely on your prejudgment. And that’s a recipe for relationship failure.
4. Don’t let the little things go. A strong relationship is like a piece of woven fabric incorporating all the threads of your day-to-day interaction. Tears in this fabric—even tiny ones—must be mended promptly, before they enlarge, damage its integrity, and threaten to rip it completely apart. If there are too many holes in your relationship fabric, you’ll feel a sense of disintegration. That’s why resolving, forgiving, and reconciling are critical to maintaining your relationship’s longevity and health.
5. Don’t hold resentment. If you hold onto anger over things your partner has done and allow that anger to infiltrate your interaction, you will unconsciously do things to hurt your partner and destroy the relationship. You know when you feel resentment—when you grumble, do something grudgingly, and think about ways of getting back at your partner. Drop it. Get over it. And move on. If you don’t, you will irrecoverably sabotage your relationship. Dropping resentment doesn’t mean sucking it up when you’re unhappy. It does mean discussing your unhappiness until you achieve resolution.
6. Don’t interrupt. Talking over your partner—or anyone for that matter—is the most disrespectful thing you can do. Period. You may not like what your partner is saying. But unless it is abusive (in which case you should walk away), it has to be heard. One of the top relationship complaints is not being heard or understood, and interrupting makes your partner feel this way instantly. Be patient and wait your turn. And if you forgot the zinger you were going to use, all the better. Zingers may win arguments, but they never win a person’s heart.
7. Never show contempt. Would you poison your partner’s coffee—or tea, or green smoothie, or whatever your sweetheart likes to drink? No? Well, contempt is poison. An icy stare? Arsenic. A self-satisfied smirk? Strychnine. A dis. Cyanide. Contempt is the kiss of death, so just … don’t do it. Ever. Learn how to express disappointment, hurt, even anger without being contemptuous. This means sharing your feelings with your partner without judging your partner personally, assuming motive or intent, or using emotional detachment to feel superior.
8. Focus on feelings, not thoughts. Get in touch with your feelings and express them. Use “I feel” sentences. If you find yourself strategizing or obsessing over logical, rational ‘answers’ to relationship problems, you’ll end up creating distance from your partner instead of intimacy when you talk. Feelings are warm. They’re living, breathing emotions inside your psyche. Thoughts are cold and often calculated. Feelings connect people, while thoughts, even when well-intentioned, can easily drive a wedge. Feelings also can’t be debated, because you own your feelings. So focus on what you know you feel, not what you think you know.
9. Learn the difference between self-interest and best interest. This simple distinction can be hard to understand and makes a huge difference in your relationship dynamic. In any decision, there are actions that are in your self-interest, in that they contribute to your pleasure and well-being, and actions that are your best interest, that they align with your values, goals, and dreams—one of which is enjoying a healthy, mutually supportive relationship with your partner. Sometimes, actions are in both your self and your best interest, but if there is a split, best interest must always win. The best example is infidelity. Cheating may be in your self-interest but is definitely not in your best interest if you want to build a loving relationship with your partner based on trust. A nasty comeback, winning an argument at all costs, dumping responsibilities on your partner—these may be in your self-interest in the moment but all work to the detriment of your relationship. On the other hand, taking good care of yourself, even if it means drawing a boundary with your partner, is always in both your self-interest and your best interest. Mastering this distinction makes you a black belt in relationship intelligence.
10. Learn how to apologize. We inevitably screw up and hurt our partners. The two most powerful words to heal a relationship are “I’m sorry.” But you have to attach them to an actual admission of whatever it was you did. You can’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” because that’s a question, not an apology. “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” followed by a description of the hurtful behavior addresses your mistake directly and sets the stage for your partner to clear it with you. “I’m sorry that you don’t like having to offer real apologies, but tough shit. It’s the only way you’ll ever receive forgiveness.”
11. Don’t be a dick. Admit it. You know when you’re being a dick. You get that sick feeling (part twisted pleasure, part horrible fear) when you’re doing something dick-like and letting your partner down. Recognize the pleasure part as unhealthy and realize that you’re doing something that will damage your relationship. Just like erosion, damage is cumulative, and after a while, damage cannot be undone. If you have been a dick, offer a real apology (see above). And don’t do it again.
12. Treat your partner as first among equals. If understanding self-interest vs. best interest gets you a black belt, mastering primus inter pares (Latin for first among equals) makes you a relationship grand master. This is the skill of placing your partner in the position of most valued, without sacrificing your self-respect, your dignity, or your own valid needs. The trick is not making your own worthiness depend on your partner’s happiness and well-being and understanding that while you contribute to your partner’s happiness and well-being, you’re not responsible for either one. When you see your partner as responsible for his or her own emotions and for managing them, too, you become free to embrace your equality while simultaneously pursuing the joy of making your partner feel special. And that’s when the magic truly begins.
I hope these steps will help you create happier, more fulfilling relationships with your partners. And if you can’t remember all of them, just remember #11.
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