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The Most Important Relationship Skill

Duncan Riach
P.S. I Love You


There is a one key skill that you can develop that will make you masterful in relationships. Without this skill, your relationships will be unsatisfying and short-lived. With this skill, you will be fully in control of your relationship destiny, enjoying relationships that are fulfilling and long-lived. This article focuses deeply on this one key skill.

Many people believe that when they are hurt by their partner, their emotional reaction is the responsibility of their partner. This is a very common misunderstanding, and it is at the root of many relationship problems, leading to chronic dysfunction and to very painful breakups.

My wife, Cindy, is fully responsible for her physical and verbal actions, but I am fully responsible for my emotional reactions related to her actions. If she says or does something that hurts me, she is responsible for her words and actions, but I am responsible for my response, including my automatic emotional reaction.

To have lasting and fulfilling relationships, it is very important to thoroughly understand, and to consistently apply, this concept. By taking full responsibility for my emotional reactions, I am able to honor my needs, protect my boundaries, take adaptive action, and resist projecting disowned parts of myself onto Cindy.

For example, let’s say that I arrive late and Cindy says , “You’re always late!” I am able to respond, adaptively, as follows:

  1. When you said “You’re always late!”,
  2. I imagined that you don’t appreciate how much effort I put into being on time,
  3. and because I need to be appreciated by you,
  4. I felt sadness.

Whether or not Cindy meant to hurt me by saying “You’re always late!” (1), and whether or not these words would hurt anyone else, the above response decouples what she said or did from the pieces in myself that I can be aware of, advocate for, and learn from. I am then able tease-out what actually happened. I am the only person that can do this, since I am the only one who knows about what I thought (2), what I needed (3), and what I felt (4), which all happen inside of me.

By doing this, I am empowering myself to take adaptive action in the relationship, because I am using the hurt to fully communicate my thoughts, needs, and feelings. In this way, I also empower Cindy to learn more about me, and to potentially adapt her behavior so that I get hurt less in the future.

Practice becoming aware of each emotional reaction as soon as possible, and then instead of unconsciously having a non-adaptive mental, verbal, or physical reaction, consciously generate an adaptive mental, verbal, or physical response.

In reality, what usually happens is that Cindy did not intend to hurt me. Instead, by becoming aware of my thoughts, needs, and feelings, and by then expressing them skillfully, I actually discover that I no longer find her words hurtful; I see them for what they really are, which is often a relatively unskillful expression of hurt.

Of course, sometimes the tables are turned, and I act-out unconscious pain through unskillful communication. In those instances, Cindy uses the same skills to diffuse the situation.

On the other hand, if my wife was really a malicious narcissist, by following the above pattern I would very quickly discover that she was not interested in my thoughts, needs, or feelings. In that case, I could take calm and confident adaptive action, such as leaving the relationship.

Contrast this with the more common, but less adaptive, way of being in relationship. If I were operating from that frame, I might, instead, respond,

“I’m not always late! You’re so mean and nasty.”

Here, I’m making her responsible for my feelings, my emotional reaction, and for everything else in the interaction. I’m making her the perpetrator and myself the victim. There is nothing else for me to do since I have given away all of my power. I am a helpless victim, and she is responsible for the thoughts, needs, and feelings that are hidden within me.

Usually, this approach is also accompanied by an overt or covert, intentional or unintentional, retaliatory attack. Note that we only attack to the extent that we feel powerless. I am calling her mean and nasty, which is probably going to invoke hurt in her. This is the vicious cycle that begins in relationships when partners are not taking full responsibility for their emotional reactions.

What tends to happen is that this hurt goes back and forth between the partners, with each hurting the other until the fight finally comes to an end, usually through exhaustion. The partners pass the hurt back and forth like a hot potato, with neither of them stopping to look at the hurt that is within themselves. By discovering that they are able to hurt each other, they can at least get some reassurance that the relationship still exists, and that they still care about each other.

Over days, weeks, and years, the wounding and scars that this creates, and the contempt that is shown by the partners for each other, makes the relationship not only deeply unpleasant, but also completely unsustainable. Even though it might feel familiar, like the dysfunctional relationship with an early caregiver, it’s ultimately not satisfying because we are adults now and what we are really looking for is secure intimacy.

There are many benefits to taking full responsibility for our emotional reactions. One benefit, which I have not explicitly mentioned so far, is the opportunity to self-soothe and self-validate. The very first thing we need when we are emotionally triggered is validation and soothing. When we are babies, an ideal mother would do this for us. That often doesn’t happen in practice, which is why most of us grow up not having learned how to validate our feelings and to self-soothe. It’s also why when an emotionally triggered child emotionally triggers a parent, the parent does not validate their own feelings, self-soothe, and then validate and soothe the emotional reaction of the child. Instead, when they are emotionally triggered, parents usually non-adaptively act-out on children. In this way, our emotional disability is passed on, from generation to generation.

As adults, we must learn to emotionally self-soothe and, in so doing, teach our partners how to support us in self-soothing. What we can give to ourselves, we can give to others. What we are capable of giving to others, we are also able to receive in return. When a fight begins to kindle, we can learn to be the one that takes full responsibility for our emotional reactions, and thus we can quench the fire before it starts. Our partner will learn how to do this for themselves by witnessing us do it.

We get to spend increasing amounts of time with our partner in a state of loving, accepting peace. We get to experience true and sustainable intimacy, with the satisfaction of knowing explicitly how we impact our partners deeply, physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. This is what we really wanted with our primary caregivers when we were tiny babies, and this is what we’re truly wanting when we struggle endlessly in childish bickering.

As an added bonus, as we learn to take full responsibility for our emotional reactions, we become able to effectively parent, because we can stop acting-out our emotional reactions on our children. Instead, we can validate and soothe both our own emotional reactions and theirs.

Internally, self soothing and validation can look like the following:

Cindy: You’re always late!

Me: [All of the following is thought INTERNALLY] Wow, I feel really hurt. I’m having a strong emotional reaction. My heart is racing. I feel misunderstood. Take a deep breath [I take a deep breath]. I’m not always late. I feel angry. I imagine that she doesn’t appreciate all the effort I put into being on time. Of course I’m upset about that. Feel the sensations in my feet [I notice how my feet feel] . It’s okay. I’m going to be okay. I’ll get through this. We’ll figure this out and the relationship will survive. Don’t attack her. Take a deep breath [I take a deep breath]. I feel sad now. Of course I feel sad.

Me: [Speaking out loud]: When you said that I’m always late, I imagined that you don’t appreciate how much effort I put into being on time. Because I have a need to feel appreciated by you, I feel sadness.

In most relationships, this vulnerable spoken response, which reveals thoughts, needs, and feelings in a non-aggressive way, will not only increase intimacy between the partners, but it will also diffuse a potential cycle of attack. What might have started as one unfortunate or unskillful statement from one partner could have escalated into a massive fight that would have caused enormous damage to the relationship.

Of course, it takes restraint and courage not to immediately attack back. It actually takes a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that allows us to think about feeling and feel about thinking. The pre-frontal cortex does not fully develop in humans until around age 24. Its development is delayed in those who abuse mood-altering substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, and sugar. It also tends to be under-developed in people who have significant unintegrated traumatic experiences. The most effective way to develop the pre-frontal cortex is to practice Vipassana meditation, which is one reason that I promote it so much.

Our intimate relationships are at the core of the foundation of our lives. They are the platform from which we strive toward, and achieve, everything else in life. It is critical that we take very good care of them. It’s precisely because the stakes are so high when it comes to the health of our intimate relationships that we can get into massive fights over them.

In summary, practice becoming aware of each emotional reaction as soon as possible, and then instead of unconsciously having a non-adaptive mental, verbal, or physical reaction, consciously generate an adaptive mental, verbal, or physical response.

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Duncan Riach
P.S. I Love You

Top Writer. Self-Revealing. Mental Health. Success. Fulfillment. Flow. MS Engineering/Technology. PhD Psychology.