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Competence within romantic relationships

Would you call yourself a competent person? I hope so, but, what does that even mean? Likely, it depends on what interest, or topic, or thing you are talking about. One might be competent at chess. Another competent at acting. Another at crocheting. What I want to talk about today, is competence in romantic relationships (I’ll call this romantic competence as other psychological researchers have called it the same).

So what is it? Romantic competence has 3 important parts to it:

1. Insight/Learning – This is the “ability to think about romantic relationships in a thoughtful, insightful way.” It also includes the ability to learn from previous experiences and think of the consequences of one’s own actions.

Example: Let’s say in the past your partner comes to you and says how said they are that you aren’t spending more time together. One could say, “well they should stop being clingy. All my partners are clingy. Why can’t they just grow up.”

Oooorrrrrr one could think to themselves first and take into consideration what their partner is saying and then evaluate it (e.g., yes, other partners have said I don’t make enough time for them. There is a balance I should strive for); they might end up saying, “yeah we really haven’t been able to spend much time together lately. I know I am busy this week, but let’s plan something for this weekend.”

2. Mutuality – When you understand that relationships are about both you AND your partner, this is mutuality. You both have needs. Do you acknowledge this and respect both your needs and your partner’s needs? The more you do so, the more you understand mutuality.

Example: Someone who is high in mutuality might say something like, “hey, I know you are having a rough time at work this week. Let me make the meals this week. But, can I also ask that you please take care of Spot [their dog] next week while I am away at my conference?” Or maybe even something like, “I know how important traveling to you is, so I bought us tickets to go to Egypt in a couple of months. This will give me enough time to finish my projects for now and then we can really enjoy some time exploring together!”

3. Emotion Regulation – If you are able to be aware and regulate your emotions in an adaptive manner (adaptive is important as opposed to maladaptive) in response to experiences in your relationship, then you have this skill. This also involves keeping the situation in perspective, maintaining self-respect, and making effective decisions even in emotional situations.

Example: Imagine coming home from a stressful day out. You have a lot of work to catch up on and the house is a mess. Instead of snapping at your partner, you decide to collect yourself a bit and then express what you are feeling. Or, let’s say your partner is really on one today and nagging about every little thing. Instead of yelling back at them, you can say how it is irritating, but that you understand that they aren’t an irritating person; just they tend to this when they are also stressed out. In these cases, you regulate your emotions enough to make sure you don’t accidentally say something you don’t mean or in a way that is disrespectful.

Great, so we have this idea that romantic competence exists. Now what?

Well, romantic competence in it of itself may not get you the good relationship you want. You still have to engage with your partner in a meaningful way. You can understand what it means to have mutuality and how to regulate emotions, but it means nothing if it doesn’t come out in day-to-day life.

One way it could be applied is through support. All relationships encounter bad times where it is necessary to support your partner. Likewise, you yourself may need support at times. How do you do either of these?

The argument is, if you have the right skills, you can both give support and ask for support in better ways that are healthier for your relationship.

What constitutes “better” and “healthier,” you may ask? Generally, this means you are doing things more positively than negatively.

Here are two quick examples of a positive and a negative version of providing support.

Your partner asks, “can you talk through this issue with me? It has been bugging me and I just can’t figure out what to do.”

Negative support: “ugh, again? You always need to talk through things. But, like always, I am here to help. Aren’t you glad you have me? Where would you even be without me? I help you so much.” Yikes right? No thanks. I think this support is defective. You can return it back to the store.

Positive support: “Oh no! It must be something pretty difficult if you are still thinking through it. Yes, of course. I can try to help. Thank you for asking. You know I always want to be able to help you through these kinds of things.” Wow. Has anyone ever received that kind of support? I know I haven’t. But that is for another time.

I feel like most people tend to think about giving positive and negative support when they think about support. But just as important is the idea of how people ask for support. This can also be done in a positive and negative way.

Here are two quick examples of a positive and a negative version of seeking support.

Negative support seeking: Your partner comes to you and asks, “look, I know you usually aren’t good at these situations, but I need help. Can you please just listen instead of what you…normally do?” Nah, I’m good. You can handle this yourself, one might appropriately say.

Positive support seeking: Your partner comes to you and asks, “You’ve been able to help me in the past. I can’t quite figure this issue out. I would really appreciate it if you could hear me out and tell me if I am on the right track.” Of course! I’ll help! I’ll even wash the dishes after. Thank you for asking so nicely.

The last point I’ll make here is that, all of what I have said so far are naturally occurring things. People give positive support, people give negative support. People seek support positively, and people seek support negatively. These all happen. But, who does what and when? Well, thinking about romantic competence again, it is likely that those with more competence are more likely to do things positive rather than negatively because they have those 3 valuable skills I mentioned above.

Research also supports this idea! This article found exactly everything that I have just explained. So far we cannot actually say that it is because of relationship competence because they would need to conduct other studies before concluding that. However, it definitely would make sense that this is one reason for why positive interactions regarding support occur.

And with that, I hope you consider all of these points. Maybe you can take home something about romantic competence. Maybe you don’t care about that and learned something about support. Maybe all you learned is that I really like to make sure I give examples. Regardless, I hope something is of use here.

Be positive, however it comes about.


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