Romantic relationships are a challenge for everyone.
No matter how great couples seem on Facebook, no matter how many loving, hugging, kissing photos you see of your friends, no intimate relationship is trouble-free.
That’s because of two facts that are in complete conflict with each other:
Fact #1: All of us have inborn needs for love, care, and attention, which when not met trigger core emotions of anger and sadness. Over time, we can defend against these needs in a variety of ways. But that doesn’t mean the emotions aren’t happening — we’ve just blocked them from conscious experience.
Fact #2: People in relationships cannot realistically meet all of the needs of their partner.
Given these two facts, inevitably there will be times when we feel unloved, uncared for, unappreciated, hurt, and angered. That is not bad. That is not good. It just is!
Research by The Gottman Institute showed that how we handle conflict is a major predictor of relationship longevity. We can become pros at handling conflict. But we must pick a partner who will work with us to build a long and satisfying relationship.
Below are five qualities to look for in a life partner. These qualities help ensure that the two of you will be able to move through the tough times and even grow closer as a result.
1. The Capacity for Empathy
Empathy is the ability and willingness to put yourself in the skin of another person and imagine how THEY feel. Without a capacity for empathy, treating you with compassion, kindness, and consideration will likely not be a priority for your partner.
When relationships are strained, humor can diffuse a struggle and transform a moment from bad to better.
For example, Wayne knew just the right time to use humor with Jenna. He could tell when her mood shifted for the worse. Jenna all of a sudden became critical of Wayne, nitpicking at things she usually didn’t mind. Wayne could sense Jenna was irritated with him.
Instead of getting defensive or withdrawing, two strategies that rarely help, he would say to her with warmth in his eyes and a goofy voice, “Are you trying to pick a fight with me?”
His question stopped Jenna dead in her tracks and forced her to reflect. “Am I trying to pick a fight?” she asked herself. “Yes, I guess I am.”
Wayne’s humor made it possible for Jenna to become aware of and own her anger. Now that her anger was conscious, she could figure out what was bugging her and talk about it with Wayne directly. She would not have been able to do that were it not for his lighthearted humorous “invitation” to talk.
Humor is not always the right approach. But when it works, it works well.
3. The Willingness to Keep Talking
Two people who love each other and who are motivated to stay together have the power to work out all conflicts. Working out conflicts, however, takes time, patience, and skillful communication. Partners have to find common ground or be comfortable agreeing to disagree.
It takes time to resolve conflicts because there can be many steps to take until both people feel heard. Talking involves clarifying the problem, understanding the deeper meaning and importance of the problem, making sure each partner understands the other’s position, allowing for the emotions the topic evokes for each person, conveying empathy for each other, and brainstorming until a solution that feels right for both people is found.
Problems have to be talked out until both people feel better.
4. Understands the Basics of How Emotions Work
During strife, emotions run the show. Emotions are hard-wired in all of our brains the same way. No matter how smart or clever we are, no one can prevent emotions from happening, especially in times of conflict and threat. It is only after emotions ignite that we have some choice about how to respond. Some people react immediately, indulging their impulses. That is how fights escalate. Others pause to think before they act. Thinking before we speak or act is best because it gives us much more control over the outcome of our interactions.
Without an understanding of emotions, your partner won’t understand you as well and he or she might criticize you for your feelings or react badly.
Honoring emotions does not mean you take care of you partner’s emotions at the expense of your own, for that leads to resentment. Honoring your partner’s emotions also does not mean you allow yourself to be abused. It does mean that you care when your partner is upset, and make an effort to help.
5. Understands the Importance of Establishing Ground Rules
In the beginning of a relationship, things usually go smoothly. But when the courtship period ends, differences and disagreements start to arise. Before conflicts emerge, it is a good idea to talk about establishing a set of ground rules for arguments.
Ground rules are the playbook for how to fight constructively.
The goal here is to learn specific ways that you can help each other in the midst of a disagreement. For example, you can agree to talk in a calm voice versus shouting at each other.
In setting ground rules, the idea is to anticipate conflict and arguments and rehearse how to do damage control. Your partner learns how NOT to make matters worse for you; and you learn how NOT to make matters worse for your partner. Because each of you is the expert on yourself, you teach each other what you need when you feel bad, sad, angry, and the like.
Everyone has different triggers.
An eye roll can send one person over the edge while an eye roll has no affect on the other partner at all. So a ground rule might be DON’T ROLL EYES. Actions like: walking out on a person in the middle of a discussion, threatening divorce, making your partner jealous, diminishing each other with insults, or being physically aggressive are all examples of highly threatening actions that trigger primitive survival reactions in the brain. No good ever comes from that. I recommend that together you write down your ground rules.
Finding a partner with these five qualities may not be easy. And, you will have to be somewhat vulnerable, summoning courage to talk about these qualities. Hold on to the belief that you are worth it and you deserve to be in a mutually satisfying relationship. Also hold on to the fact that many people in the world, women and men alike, want loving partnerships. The five qualities above will guide you in finding your loving partner.