It’s never too late — or too early — to learn the abilities that make up romantic competence: insight, mutuality and emotional regulation. And when you possess these skills, all of the relationships in your life will benefit, says psychologist and researcher Joanne Davila.
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“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.” That’s what Joanne Davila, a professor of psychology and the director of clinical training at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, contends in a TEDxSBU talk.
Instruction about healthy relationships exists in the form of couples therapy or premarital counseling, which means either when a marriage is foundering or before it’s even begun. Those are both too late, says Davila. Wait a second — how is premarital counseling too late? “Because people have already selected the person they want to commit their life to,” she explains. “What if they selected poorly? No amount of premarital education can make up for a bad partner choice.”
In an effort to address this gap, Davila and her colleagues are studying what they call “romantic competence.” Romantic competence is, as she puts it, “the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects of the relationship process [including] … figuring out what you need, finding the right person, building a healthy relationship, [and] getting out of relationships that are unhealthy.”
According to Davila and her colleagues, there are three core skills behind romantic competence: insight, mutuality and emotion regulation. “Let me say that we didn’t just make these up out of the blue,” she explains. “We identified the skills based on a thorough review of theory and research. The skills really represent the commonalities across the major theories and research findings on healthy relationships. 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 they’re in a relationship or not.”
The first skill is insight. “Insight is about awareness and understanding and learning,” says Davila. “With insight, you’ll have a better idea of who you are, what you need, what you want, and why you do the things you do.” For example, let’s say you’re being really testy with your partner. If you possess insight, she says, “you might notice or realize that it’s not that your partner is doing anything; it’s actually that you’re really stressed out at work, and what you really need is to relax a little bit so it doesn’t bleed into your relationship.”
“With insight, you’ll be able to anticipate the positive and negative consequences of your behavior,” says Davila. Having insight means realizing when you say “thank you” after your partner hands you a coffee with a ½ teaspoon of sugar and a slug of oat milk – just how you like it – both of you will feel appreciated. Conversely, it also means knowing that when you forget to say “thank you” or delay responding to one of their texts for no good reason, they’ll probably feel annoyed or hurt.
“Insight will also let you know your partner better,” says Davila. “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.”
The second skill is mutuality. “Mutuality is about knowing that both people have needs and that both sets of needs matter,” says Davila. “With mutuality, you’ll be able to convey your own needs in a clear direct fashion; that increases the likelihood you’ll get them met.”
Davila provides an example to illustrate how you might communicate your wishes. “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?’”
Of course, mutuality is about ensuring your partner’s needs are addressed, too. “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,” says Davila. “Mutuality will let you be willing to support your partner in this even though you’d really rather have your partner stay home and in bed with you.”
“Mutuality also lets you factor both people’s needs into decisions that you make about your relationship,” says Davila. “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?’”
The third — and final — skill is emotion regulation. “Emotion regulation is about regulating your feelings in response to things that happen in your relationship,” says Davila. “With emotion regulation, you’ll be able to keep your emotions calm and to keep things that happen in your relationship in perspective.”
Emotion regulation means developing the ability to manage those moments when you might worry or snap. Davila gives the example of waiting for a text back from your partner: “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.’”
Emotion regulation is an important skill to have in all of your relationships – romantic and platonic – because it enables you to tolerate uncomfortable feelings while also maintaining self-respect and a commitment to your own needs.
All three skills are needed for good relationships. Davila shares the example of a woman whose partner asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She told him she didn’t want anything, so that’s what he gave her – nothing.
Davila continues, “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’s called mind reading, it’s a terrible idea, and 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. Maybe she was feeling kind of anxious: ‘What would he think if I asked for what I needed?’ Or, maybe she was feeling guilty. She knows they are saving for a big trip, and she thought that he would think that she was greedy. 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.”
Romantic competence may sound like work – but it has widespread benefits. According to Davila, one study of 13- and 14-year-old girls showed that the ones who were more romantically competent felt more comfortable in their relationships, worried less about rejection, and experienced better mental health. In a study of 18-to-25-year-olds, she says, “the more romantically competent men and women felt more secure in relationships. They also reported making better decisions … They were also better at seeking and providing support to their partners, so they were more willing to ask for what they need and use what their partners give them. And they were better at providing helpful support when needed.”
It’s never too late to learn the skills that make up romantic competence. And the earlier we can start teaching these three skills — insight, emotion regulation and mutuality – to the young people we know, the more they’ll equipped they’ll be to have healthier, happier relationships.
Watch her TEDxSBU Talk now: