Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships | Joanne Davila | TEDxSBU

Reviewer: Queenie Lee Intimacy, security, respect, good communication,
a sense of being valued. These are some of the things
that most people would agree make for healthy relationships. And researchers would agree, too. There is a large body of literature
on romantic relationships that has identified the features
of healthy relationships, and the list I just provided
contains many of them. Researchers also agree on what makes for
unhealthy relationships – things like fighting so much
that you just can’t work things out; not being able to go to your partner
for support when you need it; contempt, criticism, hostility, violence. When these problems
happen in relationships, they can cause significant unhappiness. They can lead to the end
of relationships and divorce, and they can literally make people
physically and emotionally sick. This is why it is so critical
that people have healthy relationships. But there is a problem: how many people know, I mean, really know what to do
on a day-to-day basis, to create healthy relationships? My point is this: we may know
what a healthy relationship looks like, but most people
have no idea how to get one, and no one teaches us how to do so. We need to teach people
how to have healthy relationships. Now, you know when we typically do so?
After it’s too late. It is called couples therapy. I do couples therapy,
and it can be a wonderful thing. But many people come to couples therapy with so many ingrained problems
and patterns that they just can’t change. It’s too late. You know when else we try to teach people
how to have healthy relationships? Right before they get married. It’s call premarital education. And this is a good idea: teach people how to have
a good relationship while they are still happy, presumably. And it can work. But in my opinion, it’s still too late. Why? Because people have already selected the person they want
to commit their life to. What if they selected poorly? No amount of premarital education
can make up for a bad partner choice. So the ways we have tried to teach people
how to have healthy relationships have been limited, because they fail to address
three important things: genuinely knowing what you want and need
in a partner and a relationship, selecting the right person, and developing and using skills
right from the beginning. I don’t mean the beginning
of any particular relationship. I mean the beginning-beginning,
like as soon as possible. We need to teach people,
especially young people, how to have healthy relationships. Now, towards this end,
my colleagues and I have developed a skills based model
of relationship functioning that we believe can help people create the things
that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the behaviors
that lead to unhealthy ones. We’ve identified three skills – insight, mutuality,
and emotion regulation – that form the basis for what we call
romantic competence. Romantic competence
is the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects
of the relationship process, from figuring out what you need, to finding the right person,
to building a healthy relationship, and to getting out of relationships
that are unhealthy. I’ll tell you more
about the skills in a minute, but first, let me say that we didn’t just
make this up out of the blue. We identified the skills based on a thorough review
of theory and research. And the skills really
represent the commonalities across the major theories
and research findings on healthy relationships. And because they represent
the commonalities, we think they really can help people with all the different parts
of the relationship process, and with all different people –
whether people in a relationship or not. So let me tell you about the skills. The first one is insight. Insight is about awareness,
and understanding, and learning. So with insight, you’ll have a better idea
of who you are, what you need, what you want,
why you do the things you do. So let’s say you are being
really snappy to your partner. With insight, you might notice or realize that it’s not that your partner
is doing anything, but actually you’re really
stressed out at work. What you really need
is to relax a little bit, so it doesn’t bleed out
over into your relationship. Insight will also let you know
your partner better. Let’s say your partner
shows up late for a date. With insight, you’ll know why. For example, maybe your partner
is late for everything. It’s nothing about you
or the relationship. That’s just who your partner is. With insight, you’ll be able to anticipate the positive and negative
consequences of your behavior. For example, you’ll know
that if you send that nasty text, it is not going to go well. Maybe you’d better
make a phone call instead. With insight, you will be able
to learn from your mistakes in ways that allow you to behave
differently in the future. So maybe you’ll recognize
that you’re the kind of person who tends to jump in really quickly – you get wrapped up
in the romance of things – and then things don’t go well. So you might be able to say, “Well, you know what the next time I’m just going to take things
a little more slowly and not repeat the same mistake. And with insight,
you’ll have a better understanding about what’s really right
for you in a relationship. Maybe you’re the kind of person who really needs
a monogamous relationship. You are not OK with your partner
seeing other people. Or maybe you’ll realize
it’s just the opposite, that you’re not ready to settle down, and you need a partner
who is OK with that. So that’s insight. The second skill is mutuality. Mutuality is about knowing
that both people have needs, and that both sets of needs matter. With mutuality you’ll be able to convey your own needs
in a clear direct fashion that increases the likelihood
that you’ll get them met. Let’s say you have to go
to a really stressful family event, and you’d like your partner
to be there with you. You might say directly: “You know this is going
to be stressful for me. I’d really love for you to be there; you’ll be a really good buffer for me. Is there any way you can
clear your schedule to come with me?” With mutuality, you’ll be willing to meet
your partner’s needs as well. Let’s say you know that your partner
really likes to go to the gym first thing in the morning, it makes your partner
feel better the rest of the day. Mutuality will let you be willing
to support your partner in this, even though you’d really rather have
your partner stay home, in bed with you. And mutuality also lets you
factor both people’s needs into decisions that you make
about your relationship. So let’s say you get a great job offer
that you’d like to take, but you know it means
you will to have to work more, and you know how important it is for both you and your partner
to spend time together. With a mutual approach, you might say, “You know, I’d really like
to take this job, it’s really important to me, but I also am concerned
about us spending time together. If I promise to protect some time for us, will you be OK with me taking this job?” That’s a mutual approach to relationships. The third skill is emotion regulation. And emotion regulation
is about regulating your feelings in response to things
that happen in your relationship. With emotion regulation,
you’ll be able to … keep your emotions calm and keep things that happen
in your relationship in perspective. So, you might think: “Oh, my goodness. This is a disaster!
This is the worst thing ever! How am I going to handle this?” With emotion regulation, you’ll think: “You know what, I can handle this. This is going to be all right. There is a way to deal with this.
I’m going to figure this out. Everything is going to be OK.” With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to tolerate
uncomfortable feelings and not act out on them impulsively, so you’ll to be able to think through
your decisions more clearly. So let’s say your waiting
for your partner to text you back. That text isn’t coming;
you’re getting really anxious; you’re checking your phone
every two seconds. With emotion regulation,
you’ll be able to tell yourself, “You know what? Calm down. The text is going to come. I don’t need to check
my phone every second; I’m just going to put it away
and focus on the task at hand.” And with emotion regulation, you’ll be able to maintain
a sense of self-respect and commitment to your needs, even when bad things happen
in your relationship. So let’s say you have a breakup. You’re feeling really depressed;
you’re really missing your partner. With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to let
yourself know that it is OK; that, yeah, you’re going
to feel depressed, but you’re going to get over it
and get through this. If you beg and plead to get back together, you’re not going to feel good
about yourself, and you don’t even want to be
in a relationship that wasn’t good for you. So insight, mutuality,
and emotion regulation. I believe it’s people’s ability
to use the skills on a day-to-day basis that lets them have healthy relationships. So let me give you an example
of how this works. The other day I was talking
to someone, and she said that when her partner asked her
what she wanted for her birthday, she told him she didn’t want anything. So guess what? She didn’t get anything. And she got really angry,
and they had a big fight. Why? Because she really did want a present,
she just didn’t want to tell him; she just wanted him to somehow know. It is called mind reading. It is a terrible idea; it never works. Had she been using the skills, insight would have let her
know herself well enough to realize that she really did want something, and if she didn’t get it,
she was going to be mad. Insight also would have let her know
that her partner was the kind of guy who was just going
to take what she said literally. Mutuality would have let her
really ask for what she wanted, directly and clearly. And emotion regulation would have let her
deal with any feelings she was having that were getting
in the way of doing that. So maybe she was feeling kind of anxious: What would he think
if I asked for what I needed? Or maybe she was feeling guilty, you know. She knows they are saving for a big trip, and she maybe thought that he would think
that she was kind of greedy or something. So if she had used the skills,
she would have been able to say, “You know what? I know we are saving for that trip, but I really like that necklace
that we saw the other day, and it wasn’t that expensive.” He would have gotten it for her. She would have felt respected and valued. He would have been happy. They would have felt more intimate. This whole birthday gift thing
would have gone well, instead of ending in a fight that could really
damage their relationship. Now, this was just an anecdote. We have data to support this as well. I’ve been studying romantic competence, the ability for people to use insight,
mutuality, and emotion regulation, among young people. In one of our studies, we looked at 13- and 14-year-old girls,
early adolescent girls, and we found that girls
who were more romantically competent felt more secure in their relationships. They felt comfortable
being close to people, they could trust people,
they weren’t worried about being rejected. Girls who are more romantically competent
reported fewer depressive symptoms, they had better mental health. They also were more positive about their expectations
about marriage in the future; they were more optimistic
that it could go well. Girls with greater romantic competence were engaging in more typical
romantic activities for their age, things that were normative,
like dating and flirting and affectionate behaviors
like hugging and kissing. And girls who were more
romantically competent were engaging in fewer … atypical, sexual activities,
like sexual intercourse, which can be considered pretty risky
for a 13- and 14-year-old girl. So, even at an early age,
13 and 14 years old, when these girls mostly
were not even in relationships, the more romantically competent they were, the more adaptive relational
functioning they were showing, and the better mental health
they were showing. We see the same things
among young adults, 18 to 25 years old: More romantically competent men and women
feel more secure in relationships. They also report making better decisions, they can see the warning signs
when things aren’t going well and make conscious decisions
with confidence. They’re also better at seeking
and providing support to their partners. So, they are more willing
to ask for what they need and use what their partners give them. And they are better at providing
helpful support when needed. And this isn’t just what they told us, we actually observed them
doing this in our laboratory, where we asked them to talk
with one another about a personal problem. Young people who were
more romantically competent also were more satisfied
in their relationships, they were happier. And again, they reported
fewer depressive symptoms and also fewer anxiety symptoms. So overall, being romantically competent
at a young age is associated with greater,
more adaptive relationship functioning and greater individual well being. And this brings me back to my point that we need to be teaching people
how to have healthy relationships. So, like I said earlier on, we may know what a healthy
relationship looks like, but most people have no idea
how to get one, and no one teaches us how to do so. And this is a problem. We need to help people genuinely know
what they want and need in a relationship. We need to help them
select the right partner. We need to help them make good decisions and deal with the challenges
that relationships bring. And we need to help them
build and use skills right from the beginning. This is what the notion
of romantic competence is all about. It’s all about using insight, mutuality,
and emotion regulation to reduce the behaviors
that lead to unhealthy relationships, like fighting, and poor support, and hostility, and criticism,
and contempt, and violence. And create the things
that lead to healthy relationships, like intimacy, security, respect,
good communication, and a sense of being valued. And wouldn’t all of our relationships
benefit from this? I think they would. Thank you. (Applause)


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