Part II – The Prerequisite Habits: Lessons Learned

Woman holding up hand to manThere’s a distinct set of habits that are shared by almost all people who know how to get their partners to be open-minded and receptive, and thanks to decades of painstaking relationship research, we now know exactly what these habits are. If you want to succeed in love, you simply must have specific interpersonal abilities. If you have them, chances are very good that over the long haul your partner will be responsive to your wants and needs. If you don’t have them, the evidence suggests that your relationship future is likely quite dim.

In the present article, I summarize five lessons we’ve learned through years of helping people develop the habits through our counseling and educational programs at the Couples Clinic and Research Institute. Click here to see Part I of this series on the previous 2 lessons. Below, lessons 3-5 are discussed.

3. If your partner has been significantly unhappy with your level of responsiveness to him/her for longer than a few months, it’s very likely that your partner has dysfunctional ways of approaching you and/or reacting to you when you don’t respond to him/her satisfaction.

You may have already tried explaining to your partner that it’s difficult for you to be responsive to his/her concerns if your partner approaches you in an accusatory way, or if your partner dismisses your viewpoint when you try to discuss the issue. You may have tried to explain that that you wouldn’t shut down if your partner didn’t criticize you, or that you wouldn’t criticize your partner if it weren’t the only way to get his/her attention. If your partner is like most people, s/he wants you to change while continuing to engage in unhealthy or offensive behavior him or herself.

In your partner’s quest to get you to change, it’s likely that s/he has been making the same crucial mistakes that most people make when they become dissatisfied with or disapproving of their partners’ viewpoints or actions. Your therapist will be helping your partner develop more effective ways to get what s/he wants and needs from you.

4. If you have been significantly unhappy with your partner’s level of responsiveness to you for longer than a few months, it’s very likely that you have dysfunctional ways of approaching your partner and/or reacting to your partner when s/he doesn’t respond to your satisfaction.

Of course, that which applies to your partner also applies to you. If you’re dissatisfied with your partner’s level of responsiveness to you, it’s highly likely that you lack the ability to approach your partner or to react to his/her unresponsiveness effectively—or your partner would be more responsive by now. People who manage to avoid unhealthy relationship behaviors and develop the full set of needed habits almost always get more responsiveness from their partners over time than people who lack the full set of habits. If you’re dissatisfied with your partner’s level of responsiveness to you, chances are high that you’d be having the same problem even if you’d chosen a different person to have a relationship with. Sooner or later, another partner would do things that you wouldn’t like or agree with—just like your partner does. It might not be the same things as your partner has done, but it would be something. The ability to react effectively at such moments would be required in that relationship too.  he odds are high that you haven’t found the required combination of “tough and tender” that’s needed for relationships to go well. You’re probably too heavy on either the “tough” side (you tend to be too critical or inflexible), or you’re too soft (you are too willing to overlook unhealthy behavior and continue business as usual even when the offensive behavior continues).

If you want your partner to be responsive to your wants, needs and viewpoints, evidence suggests that there are certain criteria of conduct that you must be able to meet. The bar for relationship success is much higher than most of us would like it to be. If you are trying to get your partner to change and/or be more accepting of you, and yet you are going about trying to accomplish this in ways that are highly predictive of unresponsiveness from one’s partner, the first thing you’ll need to do is to focus on meeting the prerequisites for relationship success yourself.

5. The single most powerful thing that you can do to get your partner to be more responsive to your needs and priorities is to develop the ability to react effectively when s/he’s not being responsive.


People who become more successful in “getting through” to their partners tend to adopt the following logic:

“If I want my partner to be more responsive to me, then I need to develop the ability to think and act like people who regularly elicit responsiveness from their partners, and I certainly don’t want to think and act like people who are seldom able to get their partners to be responsive.”

At our clinic, we encourage each partner to develop a “first things first” attitude.

“First, eliminate any habits you have that are predictive of low levels of partner responsiveness and make sure you’re interacting with your partner in ways that are correlated with high levels of partner responsiveness. If you still find that your partner is unresponsive to things that are important to you, then we’ll deal with the question of what to do with your partner. But right now there’s no way to know how much of your partner’s unresponsiveness is due to his or her basic personality, or how much is a reaction to your dysfunctional habits of interacting with him or her.”

People who experience the most dramatic increases in their partners’ responsiveness are those who come to therapy sessions saying things like,

“My partner did the same upsetting thing once again this week … but I don’t really want to talk about that.  I’d rather focus on how I reacted to what my partner did, because I know that if I can develop the ability to react effectively, the odds are pretty good that your partner will soon be more responsive to me.”

When people begin getting more upset about the fact that they reacted ineffectively than they are about the offensive things their partners did, they are on the verge of good things happening in their relationships.

© Copyright 2011 by Brent Atkinson, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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.

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  • Marion

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    I hate when I feel like my husband is not paying attention to me and I know that I deal with this badly but what do I do? I hate feeling ignored and that is exactly what I feel when he does not pay attention to me. So them I will just keep going and going and saying things just to get a response. You know it’s that whole negative attention is better than no attention at all kind of thing. I hate to admit that but it is true. I know that I am acting like a kid but I get so mad that I feel like my actions are out of control. And my husband does not listen at all and it seems to not matter to him at all.

  • sue pleasance

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    This reminds me of the old saying about when you point the finger at someone remember there’s three more pointing back at you. I guess we spend so much time convinced it’s all their attitude that’s causing the problem that we become blind to our own shortcomings. Thanks Brent! That was very enlightening.

  • Dorothea Mason

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    You know what I think you need most to resolve conflicts when you’re at stalemate? A sense of humor. Sometimes you both get so mired in wanting to be right and the other person to be the one to bend, sheer stubbornness stands in the way of commonsense.

    I remember my husband and I have a big row many years ago when we first got married and right in the middle of it he yelled ” That’s it! It’s rock, paper, scissors and whoever wins, wins!!!! I’m sick of arguing!!”

    I was so stunned I stopped mid-rant and there was this silence for a minute and we both burst out laughing. It broke the tension and showed us both how pointless it was because we were getting nowhere. It’s telling that I can’t even remember why we were fighting that day but that put an end to it. I gamely agreed that we’d do that and he won. :)

  • kellen

    June 30th, 2011 at 4:41 AM

    When an issue like this one goes on for a long time, you know that the divorce rate in these couples has to skyrocket. There is only so much time being ignored and dismissed that a person can take.

  • nAtALie

    June 30th, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    Getting your partner’s attention is not something of a luxury. And if you find yourself treating it as one,then tree sure is a problem. But the most important and basic thing to do in such a situation according to me is to be open about how you feel to your partner. If you still don’t get anyresponse to such a pressing need of yours then you know what to do!

  • annabelle

    July 5th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    choose your battles- we all have bad days sometimes and may or may not be at our best with our listening abilities

  • Ilissa Banhazl, MFT

    December 28th, 2012 at 1:44 AM

    I find part 1 and 2 of this article very helpful for sharing reading material with my patients. Great job! Thank you. Ilissa Banhazl, MFT Glendora, CA
    Running a Women’s Support group.

  • Amy

    December 30th, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Excellent article! This is wonderful, practical reading, and I plan to share it with colleagues and the couples I work with. Thank you!

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