The 5 Relationship Skills You Won’t Find in Self-Help Books

Bored couple sitting on sofa“Can you teach us to communicate better?” the woman asks as she and her husband begin arguing in their first therapy session. They’ve come to a relationship expert because they often reach angry standoffs like this one. They want to learn skills to help them resolve their differences.

The problem is, most “relationship skills” are of limited benefit in your most important relationship. Self-help books, workshops, and therapeutic approaches that teach communication and conflict resolution skills can often be helpful in the workplace, with friends, and with family members who are overstepping their bounds.

But when the goal is to feel a genuine, loving connection with your partner, communication skills such as making good eye contact, using “I” statements, active listening, and quid pro quo (agreeing to each do something for the other) have limited benefits. These techniques can bring a brief respite from daily arguments, but consider these pitfalls.

The Pitfalls of Skill Development

  1. Your partner is not your barista: When you order a coffee, your experience is probably a little more pleasant when the barista smiles and tells you to have a nice day. You don’t care if he or she learned to say this in a corporate training because your relationship is unimportant. But if your partner responds to your hurt with, “I understand how you feel,” it’s crucial to know if this is a communication “technique” or an accurate statement. Is your partner trying to calm you down or does he or she really get why you’re hurting? If your partner seems to be using a technique rather than speaking from his or her heart, you may feel belittled rather than calmed.
  2. Nonverbal messages are powerful and often outside our conscious control: Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language reveal more about how a person really feels than words. These cues are much harder to “teach” than words because they are less within our conscious control. When verbal and nonverbal messages conflict, we intuitively believe the nonverbal one. Evolution has hardwired this preference into our brains: we register nonverbal messages much more powerfully than words.
  3. Many people who communicate destructively with a partner have good “communication skills” in other settings: Teaching communication skills to distressed couples would make some sense if these couples had a skill deficit. But many people in distressed relationships communicate well at work, with friends, or in other less emotionally charged settings. It is only with the person who matters most that they become enraged, defensive, or highly critical on a regular basis. Many people in distressed relationships have the skills to communicate well, but when the situation is emotionally charged, they may be temporarily unable to access those skills.
  4. Learned skills are not accessible when people need them the most: Using skills requires people to use higher-order thinking instead of reacting emotionally. But when emotions are intense, higher-order thinking can be difficult to access. And emotions run highest when one’s investment and need are greatest. In other words, at the time you most need to use your communication skills, and with the person with whom you have the most at stake, you may be least likely to access the skills you are trying to learn.
  5. Even when skills are consistently used well, their benefits are limited: When couples are able to implement new communication skills over months or years, they may argue less, but they do not necessarily feel less lonely, more connected, or more loved. Communication and conflict resolution skills do not create the kind of loving bond most people yearn for.

An Alternative Approach

Does all this mean you can’t improve your relationship if you and your partner get stuck in repetitive patterns of anger or disengagement? Absolutely not! But be wary of overly structured, simplistic interventions.

Here are some of the “skills” needed to repair a distressed relationship.

  1. How to step back from flashpoint topics and see deeper into each other’s hearts: Fights are rarely really about the laundry, the kids, or the finances. And the anger or coldness on the surface is rarely the whole story. Anger and defensiveness come readily to the surface, especially when one feels threatened, misunderstood, or abandoned by someone important. Unless a person has fully checked out of a relationship, these surface reactions mask more painful, vulnerable emotions, such as hurt, sadness, loneliness, and fear of abandonment. Change begins by learning to recognize universal yearnings to be cherished, protected, and understood that underlie surface emotions and behaviors.
  2. How to overcome the tunnel vision that results when you feel threatened, betrayed, or rejected by your partner: This tunnel vision is a nicely evolved survival mechanism that kicks in when your physical or emotional well-being feels under attack. It allows you to fully focus on self-defense without wasting valuable seconds on examining the bigger picture or understanding your attacker’s perspective. But in love relationships, this automatic response may keep you mired in conflict. The more you focus on self-defense, the more threatening you look to your partner, and the more threatening you look to your partner, the more he or she focuses on self-defense. Distressed couples need to learn how to step back from this automatic response, enlarge their perspective, and recognize their partner also has a valid perspective. This is the first step toward engaging in a dialogue that truly resolves conflict.
  3. How to create safety so your partner can risk speaking vulnerably from his or her heart: If you want to truly understand your partner’s perspective, you have to learn how to stop putting him or her on the defensive. Your partner may experience your attempts to defend yourself as attacks on him or her. Only when your partner is convinced you really want to listen and understand, and will not attack, dismiss, or belittle his or her feelings, will he or she risk opening up about more vulnerable feelings and needs.
  4. How to reach vulnerably for your partner, and ask for the love and understanding you desire: It’s scary to speak of your innermost fears, desires, and needs. What if you hold your heart out to your partner and he or she is critical or dismissive, or, worse yet, ridicules you? It’s so much safer to attack, complain, or shut down. But only by risking this kind of vulnerability can you leave behind the old cycle of attack and defend and begin a new conversation of connection and love.
  5. How to respond to your partner’s attempts to reach for you with openness and encouragement: As hard as it is to speak from your heart to your partner, it may be equally hard to receive your partner’s attempts to reach you. You may still be angry from past hurts and wonder what took so long. Or you may be skeptical because years of arguing or disconnection have convinced you that your partner really doesn’t care. Or you may hear an implied criticism that you haven’t done enough to make your partner feel wanted and loved. Or you may not want to risk opening your heart, only to be disappointed again.

These five “skills” are difficult and complex. Most self-help books don’t begin to address them, and the few that do—for example, Dr. Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love—can be difficult for couples to master on their own. But the rewards are well worth the time and effort, and a growing number of resources are available for couples needing outside help. Hold Me Tight couples workshops, and therapists trained in emotionally focused couples therapy, can help couples learn the relationship skills they need.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, Couples and Marriage Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • sallie

    December 7th, 2015 at 8:43 AM

    We had been slacking off with one another here lately so I have sort of made it a goal for us to not get that slack with each other anymore. Marriage and holding one together and keeping it strong takes a whole lot of work and commitment. You can’t let those things get lost along the way, even when life continually throws curve balls at you.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    December 7th, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    Sallie, you are absolutely right! Movies and romance novels make happy marriages look like they just happen when you’re swept off your feet, but real relationships in the real world always take work and commitment. Glad to hear you are rededicating yourself to this goal.

  • Jo

    December 7th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    I’m an eye roller. You can only begin to imagine how many times this has gotten me into trouble with my partner!

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    December 7th, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    Yes, eye rolling is near the top of the list of nonverbal cues that can drive your partner crazy! Partners become so sensitive to each other’s nonverbals that I’ll bet your partner often catches the eye roll before you even know you’re doing it.

  • Jo

    December 8th, 2015 at 3:17 PM

    So right! There are times when she will tell me to stop it and honestly I am not even aware that I am doing it.
    I guess that it has become such a part of how I naturally react to things that I don’t even understand the depth to which I may exhibit that behavior.

  • Weston

    December 9th, 2015 at 11:12 AM

    My partner isn’t my barista? But he is, he makes my coffee everyday! But i get what you are saying. If I am nice to this person that I really do not know that well at all then why can I not be equally as charming and nice to the person that I profess to love more than anything in this world? It is crazy how there are times when the people that we supposedly love the most and who supposedly love us are the ones that we treat the worst.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    December 9th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Actually, it’s very common that we act the worst with the people we love the most! So much of our sense of safety and security in the world can depend on how we feel with our significant other. When we fight with this person, we can lose that sense of safety. With so much at stake, even a minor disagreement can feel like it has huge implications for our well being. So it makes sense that emotions run high and we can have trouble being thoughtful and calm.

  • faith

    December 14th, 2015 at 3:35 PM

    Much of what we learn about relationships has nothing to do with what you would ever find in a book.
    What works for one relationship is bound to doom another so I would guess that much of the best self help advice has to be uniquely crafted fit each individual situation and couple.

  • Gina W., MS, LMFT

    December 14th, 2015 at 7:02 PM

    Reposting this on my FB page. So perfectly said and well written. I love Hold Me Tight and frequently give it to clients as homework.

  • Tobias

    March 3rd, 2016 at 11:23 AM

    Thanks for bringing up some powerful ideas. In my experience, non-verbal messages definitely come across much louder than words, but we really don’t always know what we’re showing other people. I think it’s a good thing to be aware of, but it just makes me realize that I have a lot of things to work on. Thanks for sharing!

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