It’s a wonderful thing to be in a healthy, committed relationship. Even more wonderful still is being enthusiastic about always wanting to be better for your partner.
Relationships are constantly changing and evolving, meaning they need consistent attention and, sometimes, improvements. Being happy in your relationship is no reason to stop learning and growing. We spoke with a Licenced Marriage Therapist of over thirty years in search of how to be a better partner in a relationship. Here is their top relationship advice on being a better life partner.
Healthy communication is absolutely essential when it comes to a healthy relationship. It’s been said time and time again, but good communication is pivotal to marriage or relationship. Even if you believe you’re good at talking to your partner, it’s worth evaluating and seeing if there are any ways you can (and should) improve. “The number one thing that people are looking for when they come to therapy and say their partner isn’t being a good partner is good communication,” says Mary Kay Cocharo, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. What many might not realize, though, is that good communication isn’t only centered around talking.
There are actually several aspects to healthy communication, including listening with intent (more on the others below). “To really be a good life partner you have to cultivate some ability to do deep listening. By that I mean non-defensive listening. The ability to really hear your partner, validate what they’re saying even and especially if you don’t agree, and validate where they’re coming from before you jump in and try to solve their problems,” Cocharo notes.
An effective way to practice this is by using the mirroring method, also called reflective listening. This is the act of repeating back what you heard your partner say before you comment on it. For example, “So what you’re saying is, you’d appreciate it if we spent more time together without distractions.” Cocharo tells us that this works on two fronts. On one hand, you as the listener are learning to listen deeply enough to mirror the words back—which is hard.
“Most people are already thinking about their rebuttal. Once you’re no longer fully present as the listener, you aren’t really listening. You’re thinking about what you want to say next. Mirroring back slows down the process,” says Cocharo. Add in the fact that it takes six times longer for a message to sink into our emotional understanding than it does for our brains to hear the words, and this slow pace will dramatically help you to understand your partner.
“You really have to let your partner’s words land with you and that’s a slower process. Slowing it down so that you can be fully attuned, and in being attuned to your partner you can mirror back what you’ve heard. It also eliminates miscommunication,” Cocharo explains. If you can avoid minimizing or maximizing your partner’s words when mirroring, they’ll feel heard and you’ll understand where they’re coming from. Note that validation isn’t agreement—it’s saying to your partner, you make sense to me. I get what you’re saying. This is key for any long term relationship.
Improving as a partner, however, doesn’t stop at listening. It’s one thing to hear your significant other out, but it’s entirely different to be able to empathize with their position and situation. “The third step [after talking and listening] would be empathizing. Saying I do hear you, you make sense to me, and I imagine that must be sad for you or I imagine you must be angry with me. Really trying to walk in their emotional shoes,” Cocharo tells us.
“With that comes the ability to non-defensively take responsibility and acknowledge what you’re doing or have done to hurt or bother your partner—and to apologize when necessary.” Of course, you can and should also try to empathize with situations your partner’s in that don’t involve you. More than just listening, putting yourself in their position and letting them know you truly understand can help them to feel safe, heard, and comfortable with opening up.
In situations where you have done something, it’s imperative that you do follow up with a genuine apology. “To give a good apology you need to be able to empathize with their feelings and really take responsibility. The way a lot of people apologize is by saying something like, I’m sorry that hurt you. That’s not an apology,” says Cocharo. Think about it—by saying it in that way you’re placing the responsibility on your significant other and their reaction.
Instead of apologizing for your actions, you’re really apologizing on behalf of your partner. This is blame shifting. If you’re making the effort to empathize with them, understand that from their perspective you’ve hurt or wronged them in some way. Otherwise, they likely wouldn’t be upset. Hold yourself accountable and apologize instead for the actions that caused that hurt.
“So there’s acknowledging, empathizing, saying sorry, and then having a plan for how you’re going to do it better next time without any excuses,” Cocharo reviews. “When those three things happen, you can call that good communication. One partner’s talking, one’s listening, you’re really there and fully present with the other, and then you can reverse positions. It’s a slow, attuned process that can really make you feel like your partner’s there for you.” This, she explains, is a crucial relationship tool and the most significant overall thing you can do to be a better, more loving partner.
Once you’ve concurred good communication, the next major step you can take towards being a better partner is changing your behaviors. That sounds drastic, but it’s really just putting everything you’ve talked about and heard from your partner into practice. This is present outside of conflict, too. You and your partner should be checking in with each other regardless and asking what you can do to help each other feel loved often and achieve happiness together.
“Better behavior comes from really understanding what constitutes love in your partner’s language and loving them in the ways that matter to them. It’s about getting to know, at this point in our lives, what is my partner’s greatest need and how can I support them to get it?” Cocharo describes. “Gary Chapman [author of The 5 Love Languages] talks about those love languages as being very constant over the lifespan, but I also find that, at certain junctures in the relationship, people really need something more or less than they needed it before,” she adds.
Whether that juncture arrives due to conflict or outside circumstances, what really makes a great partner is one that pays attention to these changes and adjusts for their spouse.