When I first started dating my boyfriend (now fiancé), the chemistry was off the charts—but, because of how differently we communicated and handled our feelings, so was our propensity to get into explosive fights. Luckily, with the help of a great couples therapist, we found ways to cater to one another’s emotional strengths and weaknesses, making us much closer, stronger, and more stable as a couple.
Differences in emotional intelligence may not be as glaring as other compatibility factors—you know, like politics, religion, lifestyle, and taste in Netflix shows—but your emotional IQ (or “EQ”) plays a key role in determining whether your relationship will succeed. If there’s a huge difference in how you and your S.O. process and react to emotions, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to break up, but it does mean you should spend some time figuring out how to relate better to one another and close that gap.
“The most important factor at play with the EQ of a couple is the way they interact and communicate with each other about their feelings,” says couples therapist Deborah Sandella, PhD, RN, author of Goodbye Hurt & Pain, 7 Simple Steps to Health, Love and Success. “When you multiply the number of possible emotions felt by each person, plus the situational factors, plus the stage of the relationship, plus the relationship history of each— by the number of people involved, that’s an immense number of possibilities that can complicate a dynamic.”
I asked Sandella for her top suggestions for improving the EQ of your relationship, regardless of each of your individual EQs.
Don’t Reject “Ugly” Feelings.
Repressing or ignoring certain challenging emotions—like jealousy, sadness, or anger—is always unhealthy, but it can do serious damage in the context of a relationship. “We all have a ‘shadow’ side that embodies our darker impulses and emotions,” says Sandella. “Having compatible shadows is critical for long-term relationships because many shadows you can’t live with. When my husband of 37 years and I were first together, our couples friends voiced concern about how much we fought—yet they’re the ones who are divorced now. You wouldn’t buy a house that you hadn’t checked out thoroughly—don’t stay in an intimate relationship without going deeper to learn about and work out your differences.” In other words, the dark stuff’s going to come out sooner or later, so be smart and proactively address it.
Talk About the Tough Stuff Early.
It may not be the most romantic thing to do at the start of a relationship, but once things start getting serious, don’t be afraid to instigate conversations about difficult topics or feelings—the sooner, the better. This is particularly true with anger, says Sandella. Are you bothered by the way your S.O. still texts his or her ex? Do you hate how she or he hasn’t prioritized integrating you with their friends? Say it. “Understanding the purpose of anger is important, as many people try to ignore or distance from it out of fear of upsetting the relationship,” says Sandella. “Contained anger builds until it overflows like a pressure cooker. By that time, it’s difficult to clean things up. Instead, talk with each other from the beginning—while the biochemistry of infatuation is still strong—about the things that are irritating, or else they will get worse.”
Be Aware of Your Tone.
Whether you have a naturally high EQ or don’t naturally speak the language of emotions, the way you literally talk to your partner often has far-reaching implications. “The way we talk with each other is the greatest predictive factor in whether a relationship is likely to work out or not,” says Sandella. “When a tone of contempt or disdain is used regularly, the odds of longevity in the relationship decrease fast.” No matter what you’re actually saying to each other—and especially if you’re disagreeing or talking about a loaded topic—remember that your tone of voice often speaks volumes on its own. Taking a deep breath and responding to your S.O.’s words (even if they’re upsetting) with respect and calmness, rather than frustration and coldness, is a small gesture but goes a long way.
Have Realistic Expectations.
Know that compensating for differences in natural EQs isn’t a quick fix. If you plan on staying together awhile, get used to the fact that it’s going to require effort and adjustments on both your part from time to time—though, hopefully, it will become more natural with practice. “The reason the research suggests that if just one person in the couple has a high EQ, the relationship can work, is because an inherent aspect of high EQ is having patience with ourselves and others to learn and grow together,” says Sandella. “People with low EQ are likelier to have a lower frustration threshold and to move on without putting in the effort to work it out with someone they love. Along those same lines, if you are the high EQ person, understand that you’re teaching your partner through modeling, and that it doesn’t mean you’re superior, but that you are motivated to learn and grow together—and patience is required.”
It might sound rote, but one of the most basic things you can do to enhance your relationship’s EQ, regardless of your own emotional intelligence, is to actively listen to your partner so that you’re really taking in his or her words. This is important on an everyday basis, but especially when you disagree or are going through a difficult time. “When a crisis hits, everyone will be stressed and tempers can flare more easily, so take time to openly share what you’re each experiencing,” says Sandella. “Listen to each other without judgment to allow the pouring of feelings from the body like water from a pitcher. The content is less important than the process of being heard without agreement or disagreement. Just listen without making any decisions or giving any advice.” When you and your partner both feel that you understand and empathize with each other’s perspectives—even they’re totally at odds—it’s easier to feel calm and close during tough times.
Don’t be Afraid to Fight.
Similar to embracing unpleasant feelings and talking about hard things, don’t be afraid to duke it out. It’s a necessary part of life and it can actually make your relationship stronger once you each air your feelings and get through to the other side. “My husband and I took a week every year for an annual honeymoon when we had kids,” says Sandella. “During that week, our pattern became first to have a fight that cleared any stored rubbish and then we fell in love again. Every year, I would look at him and think, I remember you, I married you. Where have you been? Because we kept reigniting the spark, I think it was easier for us to come to agreement about big decisions in the rest of our life.” As someone who has very different values, communication style, and EQ than my S.O., I can say that sometimes it’s just about wearing yourselves out and feeling heard. At the end of an hour of arguing about something, what you first started the fight over might not seem as important as it did when you start—and it definitely won’t seem that way the next day.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses.
One easy way to grow your collective couples EQ is to be aware of your own emotional strengths and weaknesses, as well as your partner’s. Who has a shorter fuse? Who’s more naturally patient? Who needs to vent about a bad day versus letting things roll off their back? Sandella developed a five-minute quiz that you and your partner can take here to pinpoint what you’re each good at and what you can do better, emotionally. “Don’t be competitive about scores!” says Sandella. “What’s most important is which emotions are the Achilles heel for each person, and that you talk about how that shows up in the relationship. This can heighten compassion and bonding, and even lead to problem-solving, now that you understand how and why the other person reacts a certain way. When we both sincerely self-disclose our vulnerability, it creates a greater feeling of emotional intimacy.”
Originally published September 2016. Updated October 2017.