The concept of emotional intelligence has begun to gain more traction, both online and in the mental health world. It’s a relatively new area of study, but one that can pack a powerful punch for both your own well-being and the well-being of your personal and professional relationships. Considering it’s almost that time of year we celebrate romantic love, let’s focus on romantic relationships and some ways you can use emotional intelligence to bolster the strength of your partnership.

First let’s define emotional intelligence. A concept that was first termed in 1964, “emotional intelligence” is most often defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments. It sounds simple at face value, but practice proves much more difficult and laborious.

There’s no denying that learning how to harness your emotional intelligence can benefit you in most realms of your life, but one might argue most particularly in your relationships (both romantic and platonic). So the next question would be, what does a couple who has strong emotional intelligence look like?

In a nutshell, in a relationship that has high emotional intelligence empathy is ubiquitous and practiced often. Both (or more for polyamorous relationships) individuals in the partnership actively work on having empathy for their loved one. If you are able to read your own emotions, and your partner’s emotions, this can make feeling empathetic a little bit easier. You mean you have to have empathy for the person who can drive you the most insane in this world? Yes. That’s exactly what that means. Learning to recognize the “why” behind people’s actions is essential to emotional intelligence. Another aspect of highly emotional intelligent couples is their ability to listen to one another; and not just listening to respond. Being able to listen and hear what your partner says is essential to growing emotional intelligence. Jumping to assumptions or drawing your own conclusions from what your partner says is not enough, you also have to be able to understand what it really is your partner meant, and to do this you need to practice basic communication skills (no distractions, eye contact, summarizations, reflections of what your partner said, verification, etc.).

A couple other things you may see in a relationship that has high emotional intelligence is a deep respect for one another; you respect your partner’s individuality, their thoughts, their feelings, their experiences, their difference in opinion from your own. In turn, you must also be able to respect yourself. Friendship is also very common among couples with high emotional intelligence. It may sound silly but couples who love spending time with one another, who outwardly declare that their partner is their best friend, tend to have higher emotional intelligence than couples who seemingly can’t stand to be around one another.

Finally, emotionally intelligence relationships are also great at solving conflict, and at setting healthy boundaries. Usually this ties back to that key principle of basic communication, but it also requires that you have on a personal level some sort of self-efficacy and self-esteem. You have to realize that your needs are important, and that your partner’s needs are important.

The final question would be, how do you improve your emotional intelligence? Great question. It takes a lot of work and dedication. The good news is that, unlike IQ, your emotional intelligence quotient (or EQ) can be improved with practice. The following are some tips and activities you can use to improve the EQ in your romantic relationship.

Observe your thoughts

While emotional intelligence in relationships is an indicator that you have a great relationship, a lot of the work that is done to improve emotional intelligence occurs on an individual basis. Work on observing your thoughts, so you can in turn learn what thinking traps you may fall into, and how those thinking traps affect your emotions. Once you start to notice connections and see patterns, you can begin to gain the awareness you need to be more emotionally intelligent. It can really help to write down your thoughts when you are feeling a particular mood. Why are you angry right now? Is it really because your partner left their shoes in the hallway? Maybe it is! But maybe there’s something else going on.

Know what works best to calm you down

Relationships do not work if you are always in crisis. I’ll say that again but in another way. If you are constantly feeling as though the world is ending, and you are taking these strong emotions out on other people, there’s an incredibly large chance that your relationships are not healthy. You don’t walk people walking on eggshells around you. Again, a lot of the work that improves emotional intelligence is done individually. Find the things in life that tend to trigger you and make note of them. Even more important, find the things that bring you a sense of calm and peace. If you constantly rely on others to make you feel better, that is not healthy and it will have a strain on your relationships. That’s not to say that it’s wrong to get support from your loved ones, but your loved ones do have a limit. Write up a long, long inventory of the things that help you to calm down and relax. Breathing. Going for a walk. Petting your cat or dog. Listening to music. Watching a favorite TV show. Reading a book. Working on your car. Cleaning. Learning something new. Write down every single thing you can think of that has helped you to feel more calm in the past, and come back to this list when you are struggling to regulate your emotions.

Go to therapy

What a great thing to talk about with a therapist: your emotions. We’re more than willing to talk about them (just don’t be that client that says 2 sentences and nothing else). Going to therapy can help provide you a safe space to discuss your emotions, your relationship with your emotions, your relationship with others emotions, and the things you can do to improve your emotional intelligence. It’s also a wonderful place to learn about coping skills and your own thought patterns; all things that tie into emotional intelligence.

Practice sacrifice and forgiveness

This one is tough. There is an old adage that you should give 80% effort in a relationship and expect 20% effort back, and at face value that sounds awful. On a deeper level it is more about sacrificing some of your own self-interests and desired activities for the good of your partner. Life is about balance, so this does not mean that you give up all your wants and needs. Some selflessness in a healthy relationship can go a long way, especially since it will be not just you sacrificing some things for your relationship. Similarly, a proper balance of forgiveness can help to increase the emotional intelligence in your relationship. Your partner is human, and humans make mistakes. Just as you would want to be forgiven for silly things, so too does your partner. Again, this is where having empathy for your partner is essential.

Talk about your relationship

Do not let resentment rot; this is a recipe for disaster. Problems in a relationship will not go away if you ignore them, if anything they will probably just get worse. Work on keeping nothing unsaid; practice honestly and be open in your communication. If something is bothering you, say it. If you really like something your partner did, say it. I have seen many, many couples in my almost 7 years as a therapist, and one of the most common traps I see is that partners think their loved one should be able to read their mind. That’s incorrect. You may be with someone for 10, 20, 30 years but they cannot, and never will, be able to read your mind. Make your needs known; talk about how your relationship is good and talk about how it can improve. Work on improving your communication as a couple (therapy can help with this); listen to one another and don’t become defensive. Defensiveness shuts down good communication. Respect each other’s feelings and experiences as well.

Regularly show gratitude towards one another, and be humorous

Couples who have fun together tend to last longer than those who don’t. In relation to that, couples who actually sit down and talk about the ways in which they appreciate one another tend to do well. The more you practice gratitude, as both and individual and a couple, the easier it is to keep from going down negative thinking spirals. Love grows with gratitude and appreciation. If your partner did something, even if it was small, thank them. And don’t stop thanking them just because you’ve been together a long time.

Break up

Nobody wants to hear this when they love someone; it’s also not the most romantic advice around Valentine’s Day. However, emotional intelligent individuals are able to recognize when it is time for something to end. Have you had too many of your non-negotiables violated? Is your partner consistently not putting any effort into your relationship? Does your partner not respect you as a person? Is your relationship possibly abusive? When you’ve tried over and over and failed it is a sign. Use your emotional intelligence to recognize when something has run its course, because some people just do not change, no matter how much you may want them to.

Some additional readings on emotional intelligence:

  • Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
  • Working With Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman, Ph.D.
  • Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust And Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity by Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D.
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
  • By Marion R. White, LMHC, Senior EAP Counselor