Whether you’re looking to start a relationship, improve your current one or help yourself develop and grow, most people agree that healthy romantic relationships are built on intimacy, trust, compassion, respect, security and good communication. The hard part in most relationships is figuring out how to create those conditions.
A research team led by Joanne Davila, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, recently identified a factor called “romantic competence” that plays a crucial role in creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
In three different studies focused on college-aged, emerging adults, Davila and her team found that people who are more romantically competent feel more satisfied in relationships, make healthier decisions and feel more secure and valued.
In addition, couples that are more romantically competent are better at seeking and providing support to each other.
In the studies, individuals and couples were asked to complete questionnaires and were interviewed by a trained researcher. The couples were videotaped while interacting with one another. Then their answers to the interview were objectively rated for romantic competence and their interaction behaviors were coded by a set of trained interviewers, ensuring reliability.
The research team members consistently saw a correlation between romantic competence and relationship satisfaction and support, but they wanted to make sure that the results were not due to the fact that satisfied couples inherently treat each other better.
“What we want to make sure is that this thing we’re calling romantic competence isn’t just another proxy for being satisfied in one’s relationship,” Davila said. “We looked to see if satisfaction and romantic competence each make an independent contribution to how supportive the couple’s members are, and they do, and that’s important because it means that romantic competence isn’t just another way of saying they’re happy, but it’s because competence lets partners behave in healthy ways that then can create satisfaction.”
It is clear that romantic competence plays a crucial role, and the construct can be broken down into three components: insight, mutuality and emotion regulation.
Insight refers to self-understanding and understanding of one’s partner. For example, through insight, you might realize that your frustration towards your partner stems from a stressful day at work or that your partner’s tardiness is not a sign of disrespect, but just an inherent trait.
Mutuality is an awareness that both people in the relationship have needs that matter. For example if one person enjoys large social events and the other prefers quieter evenings, the couple may choose to attend the large event for a while and then leave early so the other person has some quiet time, satisfying both people’s needs.
Emotion regulation refers to how both partners manage feelings in response to relationship challenges. For example, if one partner is not texting the other back, it would be easy to get anxious or upset. Instead, through emotion regulation, the partner is able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and keep things in perspective.
These factors can be directly applied to how college students approach relationships. Davila explained that only through using insight can a person figure out what he or she needs and wants in a relationship and then search for a partner that fulfills those needs.
“People need to stop trying to be what other people want them to be or what they think other people want them to be, because they’ll compromise themselves to get that,” Davila said. “It’s a shift in focus from ‘How can I be what the other person wants?’ to ‘Do I actually want that other person and do they want the real me?’”
Davila has observed that most young people say they learn about relationships from their peers, movies and other media.
She chose to focus her research on emerging adults because she wants to help young people develop the skills to have better relationships and make better decisions.
Davila currently holds relationship workshops to help undergraduates learn the skills of romantic competence and thus help college students have healthier and more satisfying relationships.
“I want people to learn about relationships based on science, based on what we know really works,” Davila said. “It’s super rewarding to me to do this research and give it to people in real life and have them be able to use it.”