What Makes a Good Life Partner?

What Makes a Good Life Partner?

When you’re crushing on somebody, you’re not dreaming about how supportive they’d be if your mother was in the hospital, or how adept they’ll be at receiving your feedback in the midst of a furious argument. No — you’re much too focused on how cute their eyes look when they smile, or how nice they smell. 

That’s because we’re attracted to people based on their physical appearance, and their personalities (insofar as we can know someone’s personality within a few months of dating).

This isn’t because we’re all shallow jerks — it’s just that we’re biologically primed to hone in on the qualities that make for an excellent short-term mate (short-term as in, long enough to make a baby and keep it alive until it can walk), rather than the deep personal qualities that actually make for a good life partner. 

Whether you’re dating or in a relationship, it’s smart to spend some time learning about these deeper qualities, so that you can recognize them in others and cultivate them in yourself. If you can focus on character over chemistry in your relationships, you can create a partnership that’s healthy, strong, and truly built to last. 

This article will tell you how. Using insight I’ve gained through working with countless couples over the years in marriage counseling and relationship coaching, I’m diving into what actually makes a good life partner — and how you can develop your own “good partner” skills to create better relationships. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

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What Makes a Good Life Partner?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a clear rubric for selecting a fantastic partner with whom you could have a healthy, loving relationship

Or a set of guidelines that would help you know for sure that your significant other is indeed “The One,” so you could move forward with confidence into the next chapter of your life together? 

While it’s true that who you choose to marry is likely the biggest choice you’ll ever make, it’s also true that whether or not you have a healthy, loving, enduring relationship with that person depends on the kind of partner you’re able to be. 

Relationships are systems, and they always respond to what we’re feeding them. If you dump toxic sludge into a river, there will be dead fish bobbing on the surface before long. If you dump love-killing ingredients into your relationship, it’s going to be damaged, eventually beyond repair

It’s worth learning about the qualities of a good life partner, not only so you can prioritize them in the people you date, but so that you can develop them in yourself. This is what gives you the power to create a wonderful relationship, rather than merely hoping to find one. 

So, without further ado…

Good Life Partner Quality #1 — Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to stay open to new information, and to shift course based on what you learn, even if the information you’re receiving is different than what you’re expecting or wanting to hear. People who are psychologically flexible perform better on the job and are able to maintain a more even keel emotionally. They also do better in relationships. 

We all have established ideas that we’ve developed over time. The more ingrained these ideas become, the more uncomfortable we may feel about being swayed by new information. People who are less psychologically flexible experience more discomfort around information that doesn’t fit with their established ideas, and this becomes a barrier to understanding people who think and feel differently than they do. When their partner tells them something that conflicts with what they think and feel, they may invalidate them or try to change their mind, rather than seeing things from their partner’s perspective and making appropriate changes. 

So how can you tell if someone is psychologically flexible? Pay attention to how they act when you disagree about something. Do they listen and ask you thoughtful questions to understand your perspective? Do they allow themselves to be influenced by you? Do they ever ask for your feedback, and modify their behavior based on it? These are all signs of psychological flexibility. 

Good Life Partner Quality #2 — Empathy

Every healthy relationship is built on a foundation of empathy

Empathy is emotional attunement. It’s the ability to understand the feelings of others and to respond to them appropriately. People who are lower in empathy aren’t necessarily serial killers — in fact, most of them are perfectly nice people whose intentions are good. But if they’re not skilled at noticing other people’s feelings, caring about them, and responding appropriately, they’re bound to have some trouble in relationships. 

So what are the signs of an empathetic person? People with higher levels of empathy tend to talk about other people as complex individuals, rather than as one-dimensional characters who are either all good or all bad. They also tend to be pretty insightful about the hearts and minds of others, rather than confused about why other people think and feel as they do. They’re not often surprised to hear someone is upset about something, and responding with compassion comes naturally to them. 

Good Life Partner Quality #3 — Commitment to the Concept of Mature Love

On the list of good feelings a human can feel, falling in love is near the top. But life-long, real-deal, show-up-every-day love? Drive-your-partner-to-43-chemo-appointments love? That’s not a feeling, that’s a commitment to something that’s bigger than you — even when you’re not really feeling it. 

The chemical rush of new love is what brings people together, but it doesn’t keep them together through all the challenging and painful stuff that life throws at them. When a relationship lasts, it’s because two people have a mature conception of love. They are committed to their partnership, and to each other’s well being — as strongly as they’re committed to their own. They know that real love isn’t about feeling good all the time. When life gets hard, they get through it together, rather than moving on to the next good-feeling thing.

Of all the Good Life Partner qualities, this might be the toughest to suss out with a new match. You wouldn’t expect to see this kind of commitment at the beginning of a relationship — in fact, that would be a major red flag. 

But, early on, you can pay attention to how they talk about other relationships in their life. Are they close and committed to their friends? Their family? Do relationships with others seem important to them? Do they think in terms of “me,” or in terms of “we?” 

Good Life Partner Quality #4 — Emotional Intelligence

Finally, a good life partner is emotionally intelligent

People who are high in emotional intelligence are adept at understanding and managing their own feelings, and connecting with those of others. They are aware of their own internal emotional state, and they can take guidance from their feelings to make adjustments in their life and in their relationships when things are feeling bad. 

Emotionally intelligent people are also good self-soothers. They allow themselves to feel the full spectrum of their feelings, but they’re not easily bowled over by big emotions — or, when they are, they’re able to recover fairly well. This makes them more resilient and better able to meet life’s challenges. 

Finally, emotionally intelligent people are able to notice other people’s feelings, have some insight into why they may feel the way they feel, and respond appropriately. You can imagine what a handy skill this is in the context of a marriage. It takes more than love and care for your partner to understand how they’re feeling, why that may be, and what they need from you — it takes emotional intelligence (and emotional maturity). 

The good news is, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be built with practice, and we all have some room for growth in this area. If you’d like to improve your emotional intelligence, working with an EI Coach can help. 

Good Life Partner Quality #5 — a Growth Mindset

If you’re dating or in a relationship, don’t just evaluate these qualities in your partner (or in yourself) in terms of where they stand today. We all grow throughout our lifetimes, and our relationships can be the site of our most significant personal growth spurts — as long as we have a growth mindset.  

People with a growth mindset believe in their own power to determine their outcomes through their efforts. This helps them to persist through setbacks, learn from mistakes, and view challenges as opportunities to further develop themselves. When something starts feeling difficult in a relationship, someone with a growth mindset will work to solve the problem, and that will naturally lead them to develop healthy relationship skills like emotional intelligence and psychological flexibility. 

How can you tell if someone has a growth mindset? A good indicator is whether or not they take responsibility for themselves. Do they believe they have the power to make their life better by applying effort? Or do they seem to think that the power to change their life for the better (or the worse) resides outside of themselves, with other people? 

If they recognize they have a lot of control over the outcomes they experience, and work to shift those outcomes by learning and growing, they most likely have a growth mindset… and the bones of a good life partner.

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What Makes a Good Life Partner?

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Episode Show Notes: What Makes a Good Life Partner? 

[2:27] Becoming Attracted

  • Attraction is at the heart of how we form relationships.
  • It can be physical attraction, attraction to their personality, or other characteristics that we value.
  • We tend to idealize and see the best in others when we first meet them, but we often overlook the crucial factors that matter in the long run.

[8:48] Are We Taught to Become Good Life Partners?

  • Putting positive things in your relationship that elicit positive responses from your partner will help you build a strong bond, but not everyone grows up watching this kind of relationship unfold between their parents. 
  • Starting with yourself, you can make unilateral changes in your relationship.

[12:21] Psychological Flexibility

  • Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to shift course based on new information. 
  • We cannot be good life partners without that openness, receptivity, and ability to be influenced or changed by another person.

[16:50] Empathy

  • Empathy is emotional attunement that allows you to understand the feelings of others without necessarily feeling the same way.
  • People who are lower in empathy can still form healthy and meaningful relationships if they put forth the extra effort.
  • Finding a partner who notices and cares about your feelings is critical.

[22:23] Mature Love

  • Love is an orientation towards others, not a feeling.
  • True commitment takes time to develop, and rushing into it can be a red flag.
  • The way they talk about other people in their lives gives you insight into their conception of love.

[29:26] Emotional Intelligence and Communication Skills

  • It’s not about being perfectly emotionally intelligent or having perfect communication skills; it’s about being open to growing in those areas.
  • Self-awareness, effective management of one’s own feelings, noticing others’ emotional states, and relationship management skills are the four components of emotional intelligence.

Music in this episode is by Angharad Drake, covering Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” on the “Summer of Love” album. You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://angharaddrake.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Isn’t this such a beautiful cover? This is, of course, a rendition of Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You performed by the very excellent Angharad Drake, I hope I’m saying that right. This particular song is off a really neat album The Summer of Love, which is a collection of songs and covers, celebrating the best love songs of all time by various artists. You should check it out, summeroflove.bandcamp.com and learn more about Angharad Drake on her Bandcamp at angharaddrake.bandcamp.com.

Okay, I’m gonna stop now. All right, I wanted to listen to this gorgeous song with you. Because today we’re talking about love. We are talking about true love, and really what makes relationships work. Whether you’re single or long-partnered, it’s worth reflecting on what makes a good partner, and the qualities in yourself that you can cultivate. 

That we can all cultivate in order to have really fantastic relationships with the people that we love the most. That is what we’re talking about today on the podcast, and I’m so glad you’re here with me. 

As I mentioned, I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist; I’m a licensed psychologist; and I’m a board-certified coach. I have a special place in my heart for helping people with their relationships, in particular, because there’s nothing else that impacts our lives to the degree that our primary relationships do. 

If you’re going to invest in anything, having a really good relationship is priority number one. So for this reason, I’m really excited about today’s episode.

Becoming Attracted

Today, we’re gonna be talking about something I think everybody, whether you are dating and looking for love, or whether you have been married for 20 years, could benefit from learning about and thinking about. That is what makes a good life partner. Because if you think about it, the way we form our relationships is really pretty weird, right?

I mean, we’re drawn to people who look a certain way or have a certain je ne sais quoi. They have a tenor to their voice. They have a body shape that we’re attracted to. It tends to be physical, right? It’s chemical, we get those little butterfly feelings.

Or if we’re a little bit more evolved, we think about people in terms of who they are in those broad strokes, right? Their personality types; what they do for a living? Are they stable? Are they fun? Do we have common values and interests? Could we have a nice life together? 

I mean, these are the ideas and the questions that bring us together, and then form the basis of our relationships. We do these things, but not because we are superficial jerks, right? We’re truly, like biologically primed for certain things. Physical traits and being attracted to certain physical traits is a biological thing at the end of the day, right? 

Healthy people who have sexual reproductive potential like that get our attention on our limbic system brain, and that is very true. Also, we tend to look at people biologically too in terms of their opportunities as partners, mates. We’re primed for raising babies together. Are they going to be providers? Are they going to be stable? Are they going to be nurturing, right? Can we build a life together?

I think because of this biological tendency to look for certain things, to prioritize them, it can be easy to miss the things that are actually the most important variables when it comes to having a partner who’s going to be a really legitimately good partner for you. 

Also, because we tend to be so other-focused in terms of how the relationship is going, like, this is the kind of person that I want to be with. These are the characteristics that I value. This is what I want when we’re dating. What that also turns into is, then, being in a relationship, it turns into, “How is this person treating me? How do I feel with them? What are they doing or not doing? Are they being a good life partner for me.”

That does not mean that you are self-absorbed, or narcissistic, we are all built this way—we look out. It’s much easier to see the impact of other people on us than it is to see the impact of ourselves on others. Because we’re so other-focused, we can stop asking ourselves the all-important question of, “What kind of partner am I? Am I a good partner to this person specifically?” “Maybe I think I’m the partner that I would like to have, but am I the partner that they want?” Being able to have those honest conversations if you are in a long-term relationship, is very useful. 

But also, I think, if you are in a new relationship or if you’re dating, to really be going a little bit deeper, and thinking about the real character qualities that matter a lot in terms of a successful long-term relationship, and whether or not there is the potential to either that already exists, or can you build it in the relationship with somebody that you’re just getting to know. 

Because in early stage, romantic love, we are primed to kind of idealize and we see the best in people, and we can get very excited about all the chemistry and those biologically primed factors that get us all excited. But not really think about those deeper character qualities that are the ones that really matter in the long run. 

In this episode, we’re going to be talking really deeply about what those things are. Again, if you’re in a new relationship to be thinking about the person that you might be dating or getting to know, what is their capacity for this, but also, my friend, what is your capacity for these things? What kind of partner are you? What are you showing them about what to expect from you?

Again, useful if you’re dating, but extremely useful if you’re partnered. Particularly if your relationship has been stressed or tense, we get very focused on what our partners are doing or not doing or saying or their tone, or how they’re saying it right.  It becomes just so easy to point the finger. 

Because we very naturally react and respond to what we feel are unhelpful actions from our partner, that kind of, as we’ve talked on the show in the past, lets us feel kind of allowed or enabled to be not so great partners in return. I can’t tell you how many marriage counseling sessions I’ve had, where people are talking about the things that bother them, “When you do this, it makes me feel that way.” The other person says, “Well, I only do that because you XYZ.” “If you want me to be different then I suggest that you take a look at your own behavior.”

Are We Taught to Become Good Life Partners?

It turns into this, finger-pointing, and everybody’s blaming everybody else for making people feel a certain way, and really not taking responsibility for their own behavior, and making a conscious decision to say, “I am fully committed to being a genuinely good partner.” 

A: What does that even mean? How do we learn how to be good life partners?  I think the divorce rates are still hovering around 50%, right? Chances are if you grew up in a family in the United States, 50/50 is whether your parents were able to figure it out and teach it to you. A significant chunk of the marriages that do stay together are they’re still married, but they’re not having a good time. You know what I mean? 

There’s not many real relationship, positive relationship lessons to wring from those. As we grow into adults, we really have to intentionally learn, “What does it mean to be a good partner, and am I keeping my side of the street clean in this room in this relationship?” It’s really cool, the power of a relationship system is that relationships always respond to the energy that you’re putting in them.

Whether or not your partner decides that they’re going to be fully committed to being a good partner for you, if you become committed to taking responsibility to do everything you can to be a truly good partner, it is highly likely that you will create a new and powerful system in your relationship. You are putting in positive things that elicit positive responses from your partner. 

You will experience that and it will make it even easier for you to do positive things in your relationship, and your partner will respond positively to those. That’s why you actually can create unilateral change in your relationship, is not by focusing on your partner and trying to get them to change, but by really focusing on yourself and then you know, saying “What is it like to live with me? What do I need to do? How do I need to shift in order to help my partner have a better experience in this relationship?”

There are rare instances where you can do all of that, and be a truly wonderful partner and they will not respond to you in the way that you would like. You may find at the end of the day that even if you’re doing your very best to create a positive relationship, at its very best, it might not be a relationship that you want to continue participating in for the rest of your life. That’s okay. That’s absolutely valid. 

If you do decide to do something different, you can do so with a clean conscience. You can say “I actually did everything. I listened. I read the manual, I took the relationship advice. I worked on myself. I did the things. You know what, it didn’t work, but I tried, and I know I tried.” That’s worth something, too. Either way, you cannot really go wrong with this approach

Psychological Flexibility

Let’s talk about what it means to be a good life partner, and what really matters when it comes to healthy, happy long-term relationships. One of the most important things that you can possibly do as a partner, or if you’re out there dating and evaluating potential partners, is something related to psychological flexibility. 

This surprises the heck out of people when they hear me say it because they’re like, “Wait, isn’t it communication? Isn’t it something like that?” Those things can be important, and they can also be developed.

Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to shift course based on new information. This is really important in relationships because in all of our relationships, we have our little worldview that we have developed over the course of our life experiences. We have developed ideas about who we are, what the world is, and what to expect from other people. When we get very rigidly in our little psychological silos around, “This is how things are,” we stop being able to really understand other people. 

It is very difficult to modify our own way of thinking, feeling, behaving to be in alignment with what that other person needs or wants at the moment. Psychological flexibility is fundamentally important to healthy relationships. Because when we have a certain degree of openness, we can hear what someone else is saying and be able to say, “Oh, I never thought about it that way before.” 

Or, “Really, that is a very interesting experience. I can understand why you would feel that way because you lived through that. I probably would feel the same way if that had happened to me.” It’s the ability to, like, intellectually have empathy for someone else’s perspective, viewpoint, way of thinking, way of being. This is so critical because again, without this, it’s very difficult to relate to another person. 

Because to have a good relationship we need to flex. It can’t be just the “Lisa show” at my house, it can’t be the “you show”  at your house, and without that openness, that receptiveness, that ability to take influence from another person, or be changed by another person, we’re just kind of chugging along in our own little rut. 

Somebody could run alongside us if they wanted to. But without that psychological flexibility, sooner or later, they’re gonna give up. Because they’re like, “Well, heck with you. Can you turn just a little bit in my direction? Can you see me? Can you understand me? Hello?” Without that, that’s truly the most important thing. 

If you are dating someone who is very, very invested in their own worldview, and that if you are always having to enter their sphere of what is real and true in order to connect with them, and you do not feel that there’s any kind of effort to understand your perspective, or be open or receptive to your ideas, to take influence from you to learn and grow from you, to modify their behavior at all, based on what you’re saying is important to you or what you need, that is not a good sign. 

They could look great; they could have a great job; they could be fun; they could be funny; they could both like skiing and the same music, and it really doesn’t matter without that psychological flexibility. It’s going to be hard to have a good relationship with that person. 


Right up behind that psychological flexibility is its emotional twin, empathy. Psychological flexibility is really around, I think, ideas and things that we’re conscious of. Empathy, I think, refers more to an emotional kind of attunement, to be able to understand the feelings of others. 

Not necessarily feel the same way. You don’t have to jump into the pool, too. But to be able to understand, “Oh, they’re sad; they’re angry; they’re upset; they’re uncomfortable; they’re anxious.” Just to be able to—it’s almost like you have a little instrument, like a sense of smell—you can intuit what another human is feeling. 

I know that this sounds, like, ridiculously basic. For some people, that is really hard. Not to demean our friends on the autism spectrum who can have beautiful relationships with people, and often do. They have so much love to give, and they can make amazing partners. They need to work a little bit harder in order to recognize what other emotions people are displaying, and then learn how to respond to them appropriately, so that their partners feel heard and understood. 

Just because empathy is maybe not as strong, if you happen to be in love with somebody on the autism spectrum, there can be many other qualities of an excellent life partner that they can draw on to be wonderful partners for you, and so that your emotional needs are also an important part of the relationship. 

But other than that, I would say that it’s very important to find a partner who is able and willing to notice and fundamentally care about how you feel. Because without that, it’s going to be very difficult to have a positive relationship with them. 

If you’re dating, signs of low empathy, or how do they talk about other people, right? Are they able to understand the hearts and minds of others in their stories? Or when they talk about other people, are they kind of one-dimensional characters like heroes or villains in a Marvel movie, right? Are they able to understand how people feel? 

Bonus points if they can understand why somebody might feel that way. They can link it to something in their own life experience around “Yeah, I really feel for that guy. When XYZ happened to me that was sort of similar. I felt really bad too.”—able to connect their own emotional experience to that as somebody else.

As you’re dating, certainly, those are things you want to pay attention to. But if you’re partnered, I would like to invite you for just a moment to stop thinking about your partner, which you may have just been doing as I was talking through this. But to think instead about your own capacity for psychological flexibility and empathy. 

In your house with your partner, are you able to make space for them to be able to do things their way? Maybe they don’t have the same orientation that you do around where things should go, or how a house should be cleaned? Or, if you say you’re going to be home at six, you are there at 5:55? When they say they’re home at six, they roll in at 6:10 or 6:15.

Are you able to flex for their way of being?—that because of their life history; the things they learned growing up; the culture of their family of origin—these things make sense to them. Are you able to flex in their direction and have tolerance for them even though it might be different from your way of being or your preferences. That’s psychological flexibility. 

Then, also, empathy. Are you able to notice how your partner is feeling? When it’s subtle, we can all tell when somebody’s face is red, and when they’re yelling, “Oh, you’re angry.” But people don’t just go from one to 100. Before somebody gets angry, there is an on-ramp. Did you notice your partner chugging up that on-ramp or not? If your partner’s feelings regularly surprise you, you might be missing things in terms of that emotional awareness. 

That would be an indication that it might be really useful for you to get—develop some skills and strategies for noticing when they might be low grade, frustrated, sad, down, annoyed. Then, certainly developing skills for being able to like know what to do with that when they are. But the first step is being able to be aware of it at all, so to be a good life partner–that matters a lot. 

Mature Love

Another thing that really matters a lot when it comes to being a good life partner, is something that is, I think, difficult to assess in some ways. Like, when you’re first getting to know somebody. Sometimes it’s easier in longer-term relationships. But that is a commitment to what I think of as like the concept of mature love.

Love, in my experience, is not a feeling. We can have feelings of love for people, certainly. Looking at a baby or being wrapped in a big hug, and just having this, like, really positive, warm feeling for someone that certainly can be a component of love. Sexual lust or infatuation in the early stages of a relationship can often be confused for love. Nobody would fault you, it’s very fun. 

But what I think of as a commitment to true love is an orientation towards others, that allows for a “we”. That when there is a loving bond between two people, what it turns into, is this spoken and unspoken situation, where the other person is just as real and important as I am. Because we are a “we”. 

There is not a “me” and a “you” with kind of competing needs and rights and feelings and differences and who’s going to get their needs at the expense of the other. There is only a “we” that we are in this together. We are in the same boat. If I am mean or unkind to you, I’m essentially being mean and unkind to myself because we are sharing a life together. There is this very deep commitment to the well being of their partner. They’re human, right? 

This is hard to assess when you’re first getting to know someone because you’re not in that place yet. If somebody was that committed to you on the third date, that would honestly be a major red flag that just got hoisted, and I would advise you to run, not walk to the nearest exit. Like, that would be inappropriate. These things develop over a long period of time. 

If you rush into that, that’s definitely a danger sign. But when you’re dating somebody new, where you can kind of get a sense for this, is how they talk about other people in their lives. It could be their family of origin, or a parent or a sibling or a cousin if there were positive relationships in that family system. But it is “we”; it is “our”;  it is this kind of identity as being part of a family, part of a tribe, a part of a group that they’re committed to serving in some ways. 

People can also talk about their friends in this way. If they have a best friend that they’ve known for a long time, there’s “we”, and you’ll hear stories about how they were there for their friend. Not just that they did nice or generous things for their friend, but that they enjoy doing it, that loving partnership was really meaningful for them. 

Certainly, as a parent, you can hear those stories that are often the experience of parents, but that’s the evidence in some ways of people who have that capacity to be committed to true love and to form a solid “we” in contrast, people who are very, very individualistic. 

There’s not a we, there is a “me, let me tell you about me.” There’s, as you hear their stories, there’s sometimes adversity or sort of an adversarial thing going on, consistently, in all their relationships. But, fundamentally, there’s this just aloneness that they feel like an island in the world, and have not ever really been fully committed to the wellbeing of another.

Let’s also be fair. Some people, by virtue of their life experience, don’t have the opportunity to do that. Maybe they weren’t raised by a group of safe people, right? Maybe they were lucky enough to find this in a friend. Maybe it could be a pet. I mean, that counts too, right? But those are things that I would listen for. 

Also in long term-relationships, I would encourage you to think about how you are showing up as a partner in that way, right? Are you able to put your partner’s needs or desires ahead of your own sometimes? Are you doing things with them or for them? You might, with left to your own devices, not want to do, but that you are doing with them or for them, because it is important to them, and you care about them, that you are there for them. 

You don’t feel like going to the pottery guild show and wandering around and looking at all the ceramic mugs, right? But your partner really, really likes that or wants to go to an art museum or wants to go to the whatever thing, and that you are allowing just a little bit of discomfort or, “Yeah. Okay, I’ll give up an afternoon, and I’ll do this with you.” Not begrudgingly. 

“I am here, and I’m showing up.” We’re gonna have a good time because I want you to have a good time, because I love you.” There’s that commitment to showing love in the way that is important for your partner, even if it is not important for you. I talked a lot about this concept on a podcast that I did a while ago, related to love languages, which can be an umbrella term, but it speaks to the fact that we all experience, love, and care a little bit differently. 

That’s part of being an excellent partner, is being willing to modify what you are doing in order to show your partner love and care in the ways that are truly important for them, even if it is not your preference. We’re being generous in that regard. Those are ways of looking at that “we”. 

Emotional Intelligence and Communication Skills

Another very important component of a positive relationship and a quality of an excellent life partner is, believe it or not, not being perfectly perfect when it comes to things like emotional intelligence and communication skills. We’ll talk more about those. 

Because the truth is that nobody learns how to be a good partner, so we were talking about in the beginning, like most people don’t come from some perfectly perfect family who had all this stuff figured out and was able to teach it to their kids, right? We learn what we learned in our family of origin with our parents who were doing the best that they knew how to do. Then, we bumble along in our own lives, right? 

Until we get into a relationship that is important enough for us to figure out, “Okay, what do I need to do in order to have this be as good as it can.” That’s when we get to learn relationship skills, right? Because of this, while, we certainly can look for a partner who has a high degree of emotional intelligence—to segue a moment, and you can listen and learn much more about emotional intelligence in past podcasts and articles I’ve written on the subject.

Emotional intelligence is broken down into four components. Emotional intelligence requires self-awareness, so being able to understand how you feel, “Oh, I’m starting to get a little bit tense. What’s going on?” Noticing our emotions, and also developing the self-awareness that we understand ourselves to the degree that we can understand why we have certain feelings in certain situations. 

We are familiar with our own triggers. We have done some insight-oriented personal reflection work around why we are the way that we are. We have compassion for ourselves and our feelings, so we don’t get mad at ourselves when we are feeling upset or feeling triggered about things. That’s that emotional self-awareness, being able to understand and accept our own feelings. 

Then also, the second component of emotional intelligence is being able to manage those feelings effectively. I’ve been doing this a long time.I’ve been working on myself for—I don’t know what day is it—25 years. It never stops. But, pretty familiar with these are the situations that make me anxious or frustrated or sad. 

Being able to notice when I’m starting to feel elevated, but then also having a set of skills to be able to calm yourself back down, not turn off your feelings.  Emotional health, psychological health is being able to accept a full range of feelings, including our dark emotions, which are our friends. So not making feelings go away, but being able to have a set of skills to manage our emotions well enough, that we’re able to function in the way that we want to function anyway. 

Some of it can be self-soothing. I often, if I’m feeling a certain way, will write about it or sometimes talk about it. Everybody has different strategies, and the strategies don’t matter; it’s finding the ones that work for you. It is emotional regulation skills that allow us to be okay, even when we’re not okay, or if you’re totally not okay, you can go have a good cry. Lay on the floor for a little while, and then get back up again, and finish making dinner or whatever it is, right?

It’s like you’re kind of a Weeble Wobble doll. You get smacked down, and you can right yourself back up, even if you’re not 100%. You don’t get smacked down and stay down.

The third component of emotional intelligence is the ability to, as we were discussing previously, notice the feelings of others and have insight into the psychological hearts and minds of others. 

That psychological flexibility piece and empathy that we were talking about at the very beginning is the fundamental ability to kind of notice and basically be open to differences that other people have, either in terms of the way they think or the way they feel. But when we’re talking about emotional intelligence skills, it’s being able to take that awareness to kind of another level.

Like, not just understanding what people are feeling or the fact that they are different than us and appreciating it. But it’s really developing some psychological mindedness, meaning some insight into why another person might be feeling the way they do, and why that kind of makes sense when you look at it from their perspective. 

When we’re applying emotional intelligence skills in our relationships, we’re able to see that our partner is sad and frustrated, and because of our understanding of that person, being able to have a good sense as to what’s going on with them.

That is crucially important because it leads us to the fourth component of emotional intelligence, which is relationship management skills. When you’re aware of how you are feeling, and being able to keep yourself in a relatively good place, being able to understand how other people feel and why—what do they care about; what is motivating them; what are their triggers; what is important—from all of that, then, you understand how to respond to people really effectively in the moment, or how to be with other people in a way that helps them, that feels good for them, that takes their emotional reality into consideration. 

That fourth stage is where we’re using things like healthy communication skills, right? I mean, I won’t go flying into my husband and being like, “You did this.” Right? That would not end well. As somebody who’s been working on this, and I did it when we were first married. Didn’t end well. Learned my lesson. 

Through my own personal growth work, the work that we did together as a couple, now can approach the same situation much, much differently and really use positive communication skills, a soft startup, when I have feedback to give somebody even that I work with, or I have to talk about a challenging situation with a friend, able to maintain my own kind of calmness, so that I’m able to be in a good place during those conversations. 

But also really be able to talk in such a way that will increase the likelihood of having a positive response in return, like, even if we’re not talking about something that’s really, like, comfy and pleasant. It’s likely to go as well as it can be, because of being very conscious about the way I’m interacting with someone. There’s a lot that goes into emotional intelligence. I also don’t mean to talk about it like I’m the world’s, like, perfect role model. 

When it comes to emotional intelligence, I make all kinds of mistakes. Everybody does. But I wanted to talk about this for just a second, because it may be tempting to try to find a partner who has a high degree of emotional intelligence right off the bat. Certainly, if you are later in life when you’re dating, right?  You’re probably encountering people who have had the opportunity to do more personal growth work. 

You could certainly connect with somebody who has intentionally worked on themselves to develop high degrees of emotional intelligence, or they won the lottery. I work with people like this, who are just naturally intuitive, perceptive, compassionate people who just kind of know; understand feelings of themselves and others, and always say the right thing. It’s such a joy to be around. But for most of us, again, we don’t do this. 

We don’t learn how to do this until sometimes later in life. When I met my husband, I was 19 years old. If you were following me around with an emotional intelligence checklist, you’d be like, “Oh my God. What did she do?” And him too, I mean, like, he was a kid. He worked at a skate shop, right? I mean, like, neither of us knew how to do this. 

So I just mentioned that because especially, if you’re younger or are dating people who have have just not had either the opportunity or the motivation to work on themselves in this way yet, they might not know how to stay in tune with their emotions and spin themselves when they start to get upset. They might not know how to stay attuned to you and crack into what you’re thinking and feeling. They might not know what to say, right?

I think that it’s a mistake to judge our fellow humans on their current level of emotional intelligence because it’s something that can be grown. Because of that, I feel that it is a much more helpful metric, certainly, if you’re dating, to think about not where people are, but what are they showing you in terms of their capacity for two other things. One is personal responsibility and the other is a growth mindset. 

These things are so important because anybody can learn anything if they agree that they have stuff to work on and they are willing to take responsibility to do whatever it takes. If it’s reading a book, if it’s practicing things, if it’s going to couples counseling with you, they have a track record of seeking to kind of better themselves. Sometimes it’ll show up in their education or their professional development. 

Even like athletes, you’ll see this drive to grow and kind of improve and get better over time. Creative people like, “Okay, what can I do next? How can I take this creative vision and apply it to a new thing?” They are—they value growth. 

Why this is so important is because personal evolution is really key to a long-term successful partnership, and being open and receptive to modifying the way that we are doing things, being open to new information, trying new things, developing ourselves in service of the relationship, because the truth is that most people do not do personal growth work until they’re in a relationship that requires it of them. 

We, generally speaking, grow because we are motivated to grow because of things feeling hard in our relationship. Truly, sometimes, we have stuff going on prior to being in a relationship that we need to work out. Maybe we had some stuff going on with our families, maybe we got low self-esteem, mood stuff. You go talk to a therapist, and you get to work on yourself prior to being in a relationship. That is fantastic. 

If you have the opportunity to do that, you’re already ahead of the game. But for most people, it’s really when their relationships are feeling hard. They don’t know why, and they care about their relationships enough to come. “Let’s come talk to somebody,” and they come and they wind up in my office. 

They, for the first time, have the opportunity to unpack, “This is why I am the way I am. These are some of the subconscious assumptions I’ve been making about myself and my partner. Yeah, I guess I do feel that way right before I do XYZ.” Like, that’s their first opportunity. I just say all of this, because the presence or absence of innate emotional intelligence skills typically matters less than somebody’s willingness to work on themselves, in order to build them if/when they need to, and to have a healthy relationship. 

At some point, all of us need to work on emotional intelligence skills. It is a growth mindset, a devotion to being able to evolve, and also, to go hand-in-hand with that, I think, is this concept of personal responsibility. Somebody’s—a general orientation that they have control over the outcomes that they experience. Technically, we call this an internal locus of control. That’s the psychological term for it. On another podcast episode, we dove into this more deeply. 

Let’s see, what do we call that episode? The Power of Believing in Yourself, which I know sounds like a cheesy and something that you might stencil on a wall, “Believe in yourself!” But actually, it goes into much deeper and more serious things, which is this concept of a fundamental belief. 

This internal locus of control that if I do something, I can have an impact on my world, and that what I do or don’t do, creates the outcomes that I experience and others experience. So that I have the power to modify my way of being in the world in order to get different results in a wide variety of situations. Again, I know when I say it out loud like this, it probably feels so basic. You’re like, “Yeah.”

But what is also true is that there are many people among us who, through their life circumstances, have come into adulthood not feeling that way. They have an internalized sense of helplessness. They had, maybe, many life experiences, where they did not have control around their outcomes. Maybe they were victimized. Maybe they were disempowered. Maybe they were in situations where nobody listened to them. 

Maybe they tried and they failed, so they stopped trying. What this set of life experiences can lead to, is this feeling that other people are always determining the situation. If it’s a job, you’re your boss is crappy and nothing you say or do will ever change it, which might be true, but you know. If it’s a relationship,  it is, “I chose the wrong person. This partner is not a good partner. It’s never going to work. They’re incapable of loving me.They’re a narcissist.”

They might be a narcissist, and if that is the case, you might be right. But nine times out of ten, you may be in a place where you feel that it is not within your power to create a different result by trying to do things differently on your side of the equation. If you really, really believe that, it is impossible to take responsibility for things because it doesn’t matter anyway. If you try or if you don’t try, doesn’t matter. 

Even if you did try, it wouldn’t have a good outcome, so what’s the point? Besides, none of what you’re experiencing was anything created by you anyway. You are just the innocent person who’s having to deal with all this now. I say this with some trepidation because I do have a lot of empathy for this worldview. 

I know why it happens. I know that people who really believe this, like, there’s a reason why, and it’s because you’ve lived through very hard things, in contrast with somebody who has a high degree of internal power and control, who has a strong belief. “Yes, I am an active agent in my own life. Maybe, if I’m getting this reaction from somebody else, it’s because I’m doing something that they’re reacting to.” Right? 

I mean, we can go too far in the other direction with thinking that you’re responsible for everything. That’s not helpful either. But just to have some concept of that, “If I study and I work really hard at school, then I will get good grades. If I do XYZ in this professional situation, here’s the career path that I could develop down the line.” There’s a sense of agency and efficacy. 

When you are dating and looking for a life partner, I would encourage you to listen for stories around, does this person have an internal locus of control that is positive and that is strong? Are they the central agents in their own life? Do they make things happen, or do other things happen to them? That’s something that I would listen for. 

Is there a commitment to personal growth and self-development that can come up in many ways, whether or not they have been in, like, a formal personal growth situation like  therapy or coaching? Of course, if you are in a relationship and thinking about how to be a really good partner, I would encourage you to think about those things as well. What are you doing to develop yourself and your skills?

Again, it’s so easy to blame our partners, “Well, I wouldn’t get frustrated if he stopped doing this.” Right? Do you know why you’re getting frustrated? What are those triggers for you? Have you dug into that self exploration?

“Why do I feel the way I feel? Why do I react in the situation? Why is that so important to me? How do I communicate that to my partner? Am I doing it in an emotionally safe way? How do I respond to them when they told me something that is challenging to hear? Or if they need emotional care and comfort, how am I showing up for them?” Because, again, most of the time, even though we don’t know it, we are reaping what we actively sow into relationship systems.

Most of the time, not all the time. Yes, you can partner with a sociopath; that happens. But that is the subject of a different podcast. This one is how to be a really good partner. I’d invite you to think about that. If your relationship is feeling hard, how much responsibility are you taking for those outcomes? What are you doing to work on it on your own, not waiting for your partner? 

Hey, the fact that you’re listening to this podcast means that you’re already working on yourself, right? You are educating yourself about relationships. You are open to thinking about things differently. There’s so many other things that you can do in this sort of realm. There are wonderful relationship books that you can check out, basically anything written by either of the Gottman is great, Sue Johnson’s work, anything reliable and scientifically based. 

Obviously, related to attachment theory or systems theory is really helpful. Don’t stop here; keep going. But with that focus on, “Who am i? How am I showing up? How am I intentionally developing myself in order to be a better partner?” If you are in a relationship, and you haven’t yet explored and intentionally developed some of the emotional intelligence skills that I talked about a little bit ago, now’s the time. Go ahead and do that.

Share it. Share this with your partner, and to say, “I want to be a really good partner for you. These are some of the things that I’m thinking about working on. What else would be meaningful or helpful for you in order for you to have a more positive experience in this relationship with me? Because I have psychological flexibility. I have empathy. I can understand your feelings, and I care about them, and I am taking personal responsibility.”

“I’m willing to work on myself, and I am committed to the ‘we’. I know that this relationship isn’t all about me. I know that we’re doing this together. My work on being a really good partner is not going to just benefit you, it’s going to benefit me, too, because we’re in ‘us,’ and I’m committed to doing this for you.” It’s okay to say that.

Okay, I hope that this discussion was helpful for you. If you are out in the world dating, I hope that you think about some of these things that I’ve been discussing today. Because it’s very easy to miss some of these big pieces when you’re feeling attracted to somebody and you’re excited about them. 

If you’re in a committed long-term relationship, I hope that this discussion was helpful, and allowed you to think about how you can be the catalyst for positive change in your relationship by being a really good life partner for your partner. Okay, that is all for today. Thank you again for joining me, and I mentioned a number of past podcast episodes. In this one, you can scroll back through my feed wherever you listen on Apple podcasts, on Spotify for all the past podcasts. 

Also, please know that in addition to these podcasts that I make for you, we have tons of articles on many subjects on the website growingself.com. Articles around emotional intelligence and how to build it. Articles around communication skills, particularly around empathy, validation, responsiveness. Articles on emotional safety, healthy relationships, secure attachment, so many things related to this topic of how to be a really good life partner. 

They are all for you, and I hope you take advantage of all of them. All right. Take care, and I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, please enjoy more Angharad Drake, with her cover of Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You from the album Summer of Love

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  1. All good advice, however, 2 points
    Emotional Intelligence and Empathy.

    What if your partner has Aspergers, ADHD and Alexithymia and they were born without these connections in their brain and therefore do not have these two aspects to be able to make a good Life Partner?

    1. Chrissy, agreed. If you’re clear that what you need in a good life partner is someone who has a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, being in a relationship with someone who does not have strengths in these areas is going to feel difficult for you.

      One path forward here is to focus on the positive qualities and strengths they do have, and choose to appreciate and build on those. Another possible option for you is to help your partner understand that their current deficits in these areas feel like a dealbreaker for you, and see if they are open to building emotional intelligence skills through individual and relationship coaching. If, however, they’re not interested in doing that, and there aren’t enough positives to offset what you’re not getting in terms of empathy and EI, it could very well be that this is not the ideal relationship for you.

      If you are trying to figure out whether or not change is possible in this relationship, I’d encourage you to explore discernment counseling with your partner. That will help you get clarity about the potential for positive change, so that you can make informed decisions.

      I hope that helps give you some direction. Wishing you all the best… Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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