How Good Is Your “Romantic Competence”?

Effective ways to seek and provide emotional support.

Romantic relationships are all about providing mutual support. When you’ve got a pressing problem on your mind, when you’re feeling down and need some comforting, even when you’ve got good news and want someone to share in the joy of it, you’re most likely to turn to your intimate partner. Likewise, your partner depends on you when they’ve got emotional needs, and it’s up to you to see that those needs get met.

Some people have good intuitions about asking for and providing emotional support. They know the right ways to approach their partner, and they also know how to respond when their partner is in need. They may not be able to explain these actions in words, but when the time comes, their intuitions guide their behaviors in the right direction.

Other people have poor intuitions about seeking and providing emotional support. They can come across as overly demanding, they may complain or criticize, or they may turn cold and aloof. They may even have some sense that these behaviors are self-defeating, but they just can’t help themselves. In the heat of the moment, they let their intuitions drive them to do things that damage the relationship.

These intuitions about giving and receiving emotional support are part of our attachment style, the mental model we have of how the dynamics of a relationship are supposed to play out. We learn our attachment style during the first years of life through our interactions with our primary caregiver, usually our mother.

If Mom is responsive to our needs, we develop a secure attachment style. As we go through life, our intuitions tell us that we can trust significant others in our lives to be there when we need them. We also intuitively know how to respond when the important people in our lives need us.

In contrast, if Mom isn’t responsive to our needs, we acquire an insecure attachment style. Our intuitions are biased toward a fundamental distrust of others, and this lack of trust impacts every close relationship in our lives. When we need emotional support from others, we either become overly demanding, or else we retreat in solitude to lick our wounds. And since we’re not used to receiving appropriate emotional support, we don’t know how to give it either.

The big question for relationship scientists and couples counselors alike is whether effective relationship skills can be learned so that people with insecure attachment styles can overcome their poor intuitions about how to ask for and provide appropriate emotional support. Stony Brook University psychologist Jiaqi Zhou and colleagues refer to this set of effective relationship skills as romantic competence.

In an article recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Zhou and colleagues describe a study in which they looked at the question of whether conscious romantic competence can override unconscious attachment style.

According to these researchers, romantic competence consists of three components:

  • Insight, which is the ability to reflect on romantic experiences and to anticipate the impact of one’s behavior on the quality of the relationship.

  • Mutuality, which is the understanding that relationships are about meeting each other’s needs, but also the understanding that each partner has different needs that are equally valid.

  • Emotion regulation, which is an awareness of the emotions you’re feeling and the ability to channel them in ways that will be beneficial for both members of the relationship.

In other words, romantic competence entails a conscious awareness of both emotional needs and appropriate actions for meeting those needs within a well-functioning relationship.

For this study, the researchers recruited 89 male-female couples whose average age was 20. The reason for targeting emerging adults was that they’re new to the dynamics of romance and intimacy, so they’re still exploring the type of relationship and partner that's right for them. And because their relationships are still fresh, their emotions toward them are likely quite high.

When the couples arrived at the laboratory, each partner individually responded to a series of questionnaires that measured relationship satisfaction and attachment style. They also underwent separate interviews with one of the researchers that explored their degree of romantic competence. Specifically, they were presented with a series of hypothetical romantic and sexual situations and asked to describe how they would respond. This structured interview style has been successfully used in previous research to gauge romantic competence.

The partners were then brought back together to engage in two conversations in which they took turns seeking or providing emotional support. One person was told to talk about something they’d like to change about themselves, while the other was told to be involved in the discussion and to respond as they wished. After that, the roles were reversed. These conversations were videotaped and later analyzed by the research team.

In particular, they were looking for examples of positive and negative support-seeking as well as positive and negative support provision. Examples of these included:

  • Positive support-seeking: Respectfully requesting help, expressing appropriate feelings related to the topic, and responding positively to suggestions or questions.

  • Negative support-seeking: Complaining or whining, demanding help, and acting in a defensive manner.

  • Positive support provision: Validating feelings, encouraging discussion, making specific suggestions, and providing affection or physical comfort.

  • Negative support provision: Blaming or criticizing, being disengaged or inattentive, and changing the topic to oneself.

The researchers tallied examples of each of these in the couples’ conversations.

This study yielded two important results. First, romantic competence was associated with more positive support-seeking and provision and less negative support-seeking and provision, thus confirming the validity of this concept. The recorded conversations also demonstrated that these couples were acting on their romantic competence. In the heat of the moment, we’re often driven to say or do things we know will hurt our partner—even though we know better. But such was not the case with those couples who were high in romantic competence.

Second, the results showed that high levels of romantic competence led to more positive and fewer negative support behaviors, even when levels of attachment insecurity were also high. In other words, the conscious knowledge of appropriate behaviors that romantic competence provides can override the misguided intuitions about how to act that come from attachment insecurity. This gives the researchers hope that romantic competence is a set of skills that can be effectively taught.

The concept of romantic competence is related to similar ideas, such as mindfulness and emotional intelligence, often recommended as antidotes to failing relationships. What all of these have in common is the notion that becoming aware of the feelings we have, the actions we’re inclined to engage in, and the consequences of those behaviors can all help us to interact with our intimate partners in ways that will strengthen the relationship.

Those who learned appropriate models of relationship dynamics in their childhood can generally rely on their intuitions to guide their behaviors. But for the rest of us, it’s better to turn off the autopilot and act according to conscious principles that we know will lead to good results, despite what our intuitions are telling us.