Relationships can be one of the most joyful and fulfilling aspects of our lives, and they can also challenge us beyond comprehension. We've all heard that communication is the most important thing in any relationship. Yet, in the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert, author John M. Gottman, Ph.D., says that emotional intelligence is the key to a successful relationship. Regardless of whether or not you are interested in getting married, this principle of emotional intelligence can be applied to all relationships.
After studying and working with hundreds of patients, Dr. Gottman found that some relationships have horrible communication and still manage to make it through the worst of times. Having a level of emotional intelligence enables a person to still be loving with their partner even when they aren't able to effectively communicate their needs.
We all enter into romantic relationships with the intention of enjoying ourselves and one another in a partnership and yet, when misunderstandings arise and we aren't feeling connected with our partner, our default mode is usually to lash out at them or to shut down and go inside. The key to overcoming this and to prevent sabotaging our relationships is emotional intelligence—and a fundamental component of emotional intelligence is compassion.
The definition of compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. To be compassionate in our relationship means that we are able to recognize when our partner or spouse is suffering in some way and to be loving and kind to them as they move through their process. This kind of support can be provided in a number of ways.
Let’s consider basic human needs, as taught by psychologist Abraham Maslow. All of our behaviors are driven by our needs, and our needs are derived from our emotional states. After our needs of food and shelter have been met, each of us have very important basic needs—four of which are the need for attention, affection, appreciation, and acceptance. The ways in which we seek these things is dependent upon our level of emotional intelligence, our beliefs, and our core values. Following are some examples of how you can bring awareness to these areas and begin to practice being more compassionate in your relationship.
We all need attention—to feel seen, heard, and recognized. We need to know that we matter and that we are a part of a greater collective. Think about the ways in which you need and seek attention each day, and consider how you might provide this need for attention for your partner.
Listen with Intention
One way to be attentive toward your partner is to minimize distractions so that you can be completely present with them. Turn toward them and listen with the intention of really hearing what they are saying. Try listening with your heart rather than your mind when your partner is expressing themselves. Let them finish sharing their thoughts and feelings before interjecting your opinion or your solution, or going back to whatever you were working on. Often times, people just need to be paid attention to and feel heard.
Everyone needs some level of affection, including those who aren’t necessarily the touchy-feely types. Affection comes in many forms, including a sincere smile, a kind gesture, a gentle touch on the arm, giving hugs, or making love. You can also be affectionate in your speech by using soft tones, encouraging words, and compliments.
Be Kind with Your Speech
Sometimes it's not what we say but, rather, how we say things. Take a moment to really consider what your partner is going through and speak to them with loving kindness. Consider a time when you were going through something similar and see how you might support your partner in a way that would have felt good for you in your own time of need.
If what they are experiencing is affecting you in a negative way, you may want to contemplate what you're feeling inclined to say to them before doing so. Run your communication through these questions in your mind prior to verbalizing it: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Do I want to be right or do I want to have peace?
Each of us has an innate need to feel valued and appreciated, especially by those we love. Find ways to show your appreciation for your partner by acknowledging their actions and being thoughtful about ordinary matters. Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagine what their reality is like to help you better understand where they are at. Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world and they take the time to bask in their appreciation for one another. Consider the qualities and characteristics of your partner that you genuinely appreciate and share these things with them frequently.
Nurture Your Friendship and Your Relationship
Successful relationships all have a solid friendship at their core, which points to the individuals having a mutual respect for and an enjoyment of each other’s company as a foundational component. They don’t just get along, there is a fondness and an admiration for one another and they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations. It’s also highly productive to spend time having conversations about shared meaningful experiences on a regular basis.
As individuals, we all share an imperative need to feel accepted by our partners and in our daily lives. It’s easy to accept those aspects of ourselves and others that are beautiful, inspiring, happy, and successful. Where the real challenge lies is accepting ourselves and others’ not-so-desirable qualities.
Create a Safe Space for Your Partner to Be Themselves
Create a safe environment for your partner to be vulnerable and share themselves fully. Let them know how much you care for them and that you have no judgment toward anything they may be thinking or feeling, and that they are perfect just as they are. None of us are exempt from embodying behaviors, qualities, or characteristics that are less than desirable.
Whenever you are feeling charged up about someone else’s behavior, ask yourself: Where have I demonstrated this type of behavior in my own life? It won’t take much digging to find where we all have the capacity to exercise poor judgment and to make mistakes. The gift in recognizing this is that we are able to glean the lesson or wisdom from those qualities and use them in positive ways. By recognizing that we all share in this experience at some point or another, it helps us soften into supporting another when they are in a place of suffering or need. Tell your partner all the ways in which you appreciate and accept them for who and what they are—exactly as they are.
Sometimes it’s difficult to remain in a compassionate place with our partners. It requires a level of awareness and emotional intelligence that, at times, can seem far-reaching. You will always have some complaints about your partner and vice versa. Catching yourself before you go to a place of criticism or defensiveness and pausing for a moment can be just the thing you need to redirect your focus toward compassion for your partner. Bring yourself back to all the positive things about your relationship and wait until you’re both in a good space before discussing challenges. From this space, you can work together to set course corrections and design conscious and loving recovery strategies.