By now most of us know there are multiple types of intelligence,
and we’re also aware that emotional intelligence trumps the
intellect when it comes to relationships. Because yes, men read
relationship articles, too. We even buy self-help books. We even
But you may not know there is a subset of emotional intelligence
that applies specifically to relationships and even more specifically
to intimate partnerships. Let’s call it relationship intelligence.
Because men have been conditioned to feel inadequate in this area
and shown as bumblers in popular media, we have trouble trusting
our instincts and tapping our innate relationship skills.
And let’s dispel right now the myth that women are born with
relationship intelligence and have more of it than men. They don’t.
But because men have been conditioned to feel inadequate in this
area and shown as bumblers in popular media, we have trouble
trusting our instincts and tapping our innate relationship skills. So
we often come across as under-confident and unsure of ourselves.
Guys, being a good partner is not difficult. You already have
everything you need to bring your best self to a relationship.
Because your best self is right there, inside you.
A word about the phrase ‘relationship intelligence.’ I didn’t coin it.
There’s a book (from 1998), and a more recent article. But none of
the available material distills the wisdom you need to navigate the
most important relationship of your life into simple steps you can
learn, practice, master, and post on your wall to remind yourself to
keep doing them every day.
So here’s your simple 11-step guide to relationship intelligence.
1. Respect yourself.
You thought I was going to start with respect your partner, but the
truth is, self-respect comes first and is the foundation of every
healthy relationship. No woman wants to be with a doormat, and if
you don’t have a spine, you’ll be tagged as a ‘nice guy’ and
relegated to the friend zone. Maintaining your boundaries is
actually sexy, because it shows a woman you will respect hers too
and also draw boundaries around your relationship. Make your
personal growth and your self-care important. Don’t be afraid to
say no. Make yourself a priority, and your partner will treat you as
2. Respect your partner.
There are many ways you can show respect—and you have to
show it, not just speak it. Listening is primary, and everything
follows from tuning in, hearing your partner, and taking your
partner’s needs seriously. The core of respect really is the golden
rule of treating your partner the way you’d like to be treated. But
you have to go beyond gold and embrace titanium. This means
learning to avoid behaviors that come across as disrespectful to
your partner, even if you wouldn’t find them disrespectful yourself.
Don’t worry about figuring out what these are. Your partner will tell
you. Your job is to listen, learn, and back up your knowledge with
3. Don’t prejudge.
You may think you have the answer. You may be convinced you’re
right. But there’s a chance you’re dead wrong. Unless you have a
thing for dimwits, you chose your partner because this person is
smart, so it makes sense to keep an open mind, be willing to see
that you might be wrong, admit without reservation when you are
wrong, and benefit from your partner’s good sense and wisdom. If
you prejudge a situation, you won’t hear what your partner has to
say, and you’ll frame your response based solely on your
prejudgment. And that’s a recipe for relationship failure.
4. Don’t let the little things go.
A strong relationship is like a piece of woven fabric incorporating
all the threads of your day-to-day interaction. Tears in this fabric—
even tiny ones—must be mended promptly, before they enlarge,
damage its integrity, and threaten to rip it completely apart. If
there are too many holes in your relationship fabric, you’ll feel a
sense of disintegration. That’s why resolving, forgiving, and
reconciling are critical to maintaining your relationship’s longevity
5. Don’t hold resentment.
If you hold onto anger over things your partner has done and allow
that anger to infiltrate your interaction, you will unconsciously do
things to hurt your partner and destroy the relationship. You know
when you feel resentment—when you grumble, do something
grudgingly, and think about ways of getting back at your partner.
Drop it. Get over it. And move on. If you don’t, you will
irrecoverably sabotage your relationship. Dropping resentment
doesn’t mean sucking it up when you’re unhappy. It does mean
discussing your unhappiness until you achieve resolution.
6. Don’t interrupt.
Talking over your partner—or anyone for that matter—is the most
disrespectful thing you can do. Period. You may not like what your
partner is saying. But unless it is abusive (in which case you
should walk away), it has to be heard. One of the top relationship
complaints is not being heard or understood, and interrupting
makes your partner feel this way instantly. Be patient and wait
your turn. And if you forgot the zinger you were going to use, all
the better. Zingers may win arguments, but they never win a
7. Never show contempt.
Would you poison your partner’s coffee—or tea, or green smoothie,
or whatever your sweetheart likes to drink? No? Well, contempt is
poison. An icy stare? Arsenic. A self-satisfied smirk? Strychnine. A
dis. Cyanide. Contempt is the kiss of death, so just … don’t do it.
Ever. Learn how to express disappointment, hurt, even anger
without being contemptuous. This means sharing your feelings
with your partner without judging your partner personally,
assuming motive or intent, or using emotional detachment to feel
8. Focus on feelings, not thoughts.
Get in touch with your feelings and express them. Use “I feel”
sentences. If you find yourself strategizing or obsessing over
logical, rational ‘answers’ to relationship problems, you’ll end up
creating distance from your partner instead of intimacy when you
talk. Feelings are warm. They’re living, breathing emotions inside
your psyche. Thoughts are cold and often calculated. Feelings
connect people, while thoughts, even when well-intentioned, can
easily drive a wedge. Feelings also can’t be debated, because you
own your feelings. So focus on what you know you feel, not what
you think you know.
9. Learn the difference between self-interest and best interest.
This simple distinction can be hard to understand and makes a
huge difference in your relationship dynamic. In any decision, there
are actions that are in your self-interest, in that they contribute to
your pleasure and well-being, and actions that are your best
interest, that they align with your values, goals, and dreams—one
of which is enjoying a healthy, mutually supportive relationship
with your partner. Sometimes, actions are in both your self and
your best interest, but if there is a split, best interest must always
win. The best example is infidelity. Cheating may be in your self-
interest but is definitely not in your best interest if you want to
build a loving relationship with your partner based on trust. A nasty
comeback, winning an argument at all costs, dumping
responsibilities on your partner—these may be in your self-interest
in the moment but all work to the detriment of your relationship.
On the other hand, taking good care of yourself, even if it means
drawing a boundary with your partner, is always in both your self-
interest and your best interest. Mastering this distinction makes
you a black belt in relationship intelligence.
10. Learn how to apologize.
We inevitably screw up and hurt our partners. The two most
powerful words to heal a relationship are “I’m sorry.” But you have
to attach them to an actual admission of whatever it was you did.
You can’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” because that’s a question,
not an apology. “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” followed by a
description of the hurtful behavior addresses your mistake directly
and sets the stage for your partner to clear it with you. “I’m sorry
that you don’t like having to offer real apologies, but tough shit.
It’s the only way you’ll ever receive forgiveness.”
11. Treat your partner as first among equals.
If understanding self-interest vs. best interest gets you a black belt,
mastering primus inter pares (Latin for first among equals) makes
you a relationship grand master. This is the skill of placing your
partner in the position of most valued, without sacrificing your self-
respect, your dignity, or your own valid needs. The trick is not
making your own worthiness depend on your partner’s happiness
and well-being and understanding that while you contribute to your
partner’s happiness and well-being, you’re not responsible for
either one. When you see your partner as responsible for his or her
own emotions and for managing them, too, you become free to
embrace your equality while simultaneously pursuing the joy of
making your partner feel special. And that’s when the magic truly