3 Habits of Emotionally Strong Couples

Unhappy couples tend to have a lot of shared bad habits…

For example:

  • When one partner gets anxious, the other gets overly-critical or condescending.
  • Maybe each party tends to get avoidant and guarded when they’re stressed, triggering the other to worry and feel insecure.

Of course there are dozens of patterns like this, but the core problem is the same…

Unhappy couples are often unhappy because they’re not good at managing difficult emotions—either their own or their partner’s.

On the other hand, relatively happy couples tend to be emotionally strong and manage difficult emotions well, together.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at three habits that happy, emotionally strong couples share plus some suggestions for how to cultivate them in your own relationship.

1. Assertive Requests

Without knowing it, many couples start off their lives together establishing a dangerous precedent in the relationship…

They don’t ask each other for what they really want.

Here’s a quick example from a former client of mine:

  • She’s a little uncomfortable about money because she grew up poor. So she never asks about her husband’s spending and saving habits despite knowing it’s an important topic to talk about.
  • Years go by, he silently accumulates huge amounts of debt and feels too ashamed to talk about it.
  • Eventually, the bubble bursts because his debt goes into collections and she finds out.
  • Their joint finances are a wreck, her trust in him is severely damaged, his self-esteem hits rock bottom, and they fight constantly now.

How did this happen?

Of course, the main problem was his excessive spending. But early on, it probably could have been addressed much less painfully if my client followed through on her instinct and been willing to ask for more information about his financial picture despite feeling anxious and uncomfortable.

Similarly, if he had been able to talk about his spending problem despite feeling ashamed, they probably could have addressed the problem much sooner with less debt and far less damage done to the relationship.

In the moment, it’s easy to rationalize not making uncomfortable requests and asking for what you want…

  • I don’t want to be nosey…
  • It’s not that big a deal…
  • I’ll ask another time when we’re both more comfortable…
  • It’s none of my business…
  • I don’t want to seem pushy or rude…
  • Etc.

But here’s the thing…

The short-term emotional discomfort of making a request is nothing compared to the deep resentment and hurt that eventually comes from not asking for what you want.

And it could be any aspect of your relationship, big or small…

  • Maybe you want to ask that your partner to travel less for work
  • Maybe you want to ask that you have sex more often
  • Maybe you want to ask that you change your eating habits as a couple
  • Maybe you want to ask that you watch more rom-coms
  • Maybe you want to ask that you move to a new city or state
  • Maybe you want to ask that your partner start taking out the trash

Healthy couples are willing to endure the emotional discomfort of asking for what they really want.

And how do they do this? Well, they have a healthy relationship with their emotions…

  • They think about and talk about how they’re feeling.
  • They don’t avoid or intellectualize their emotions.
  • They know that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
  • They validate emotions—both their own and their partners.

Yes, asking for what you want is uncomfortable. But so is working out, studying for an exam, practicing the piano, saving money, pulling weeds, or hundreds of other things in life that we know are important and do despite their discomfort.

Start small. Ask for little things despite them seeming trivial or silly. Slowly, your confidence will rise and you’ll be able to ask for bigger and bigger things until eventually you get to the point where you feel complete freedom to ask for anything you want in your relationship. And that’s an incredible feeling for any couple.

“It is naive to think that self-assertiveness is easy. To live self-assertively–which means to live authentically–is an act of high courage. That is why so many people spend the better part of their lives in hiding–from others and also from themselves.”
— Nathaniel Branden

2. Firm Boundaries

We just talked about the importance of asking for what you want. But the reverse is just as essential…

Healthy relationships depend on both parties being willing to set and enforce good boundaries.

For example:

  • Saying no to your spouse’s request that you watch the kids on Saturday while he goes out golfing with his buddies (even though you’re afraid that he’ll think you’re being selfish).
  • Or saying no when your partner suggests extending your vacation with her family (even though you’re afraid she’ll feel hurt and give you the silent treatment for a couple days).

Of course, in the moment, it’s easier and smoother to just “go with the flow” and say yes to requests. We all like being positive and accommodating. And we all dislike other people potentially thinking or feeling badly about us.

But the long-term costs are never worth it…

If you chronically say yes to things you don’t want to do—and as a result, always say no to your own wants and needs—you will end up resentful and bitter.

Now, while setting boundaries is difficult because it requires tolerating that short-term emotional discomfort, the bigger challenge is enforcing our boundaries when they’re not respected…

For example:

  • Choosing to leave a conversation where your partner is being rude and disrespectful because you’ve told them that’s a firm boundary for you (despite wanting desperately to solve the problem now).
  • Or staying firm and saying no to your spouse’s “just this once” exception to your boundary of not scheduling work trips that conflict with family vacations.

Enforcing good boundaries is especially difficult because of the “well, just this once…” rationalization. And while that kind of thinking can be tempting, it’s extremely problematic to give in on your boundaries…

When you make exceptions to your boundaries, you teach people not to respect them.

As a result, future boundary violations become more common and harder to enforce.

At the end of the day, setting and enforcing boundaries is about self-respect. And for a relationship to be healthy, both parties need to feel they are respected and that their wants and needs matter.

So when both parties get in the habit of setting, enforcing, and respecting good boundaries, the relationship thrives.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
— Brene Brown

3. Intentional Vulnerability

Vulnerability means acknowledging and talking about things that are difficult or uncomfortable for you.

For example:

  • Admitting that you made a mistake without rationalizing or justifying it
  • Talking about how scared you feel
  • Sharing a concern or worry you have

Now, while vulnerability is an important part of emotional health and wellbeing for individuals, it’s especially important in the context of your primary relationship.

Here’s why…

When partners are willing to be vulnerable they can work through problems early while they’re relatively small and manageable.

We all experience difficult, painful things in life. Unfortunately, most of us grow up learning that, deep down, it’s not really okay to make mistakes or feel bad. And that despite what people say superficially, the message a lot of us received is that if you make a mistake, you’ll be criticized or people will get angry with you; or that if you feel bad, people will think you’re weak or ignore you.

As a result of this early learning, our automatic tendency is to hide or avoid our pain…

  • When we’re feeling bad, we hold it and don’t share it.
  • When we’re struggling with something we did and refuse to ask for help.
  • When we make a mistake we hide it for as long as possible or generate elaborate excuses and rationales for it.

And while hiding our difficulties and struggles works for a while, eventually it starts causing problems, especially in our relationships. And the reason is simple…

The more you avoid a problem the bigger it gets and the more shame and anxiety you build around it.

And when the problem eventually comes to light, it’s so big and overwhelming, and you have so much shame and anxiety about it, that it becomes a major problem in the relationship.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to be vulnerable and talk about your mistakes, fears, and difficulties early, they’re likely to be much smaller and more manageable, so the process of working through them will be much less of a strain on the relationship.

But even more importantly, when you’re willing to be vulnerable with your partner, it shows that you’re confident in you and your partner’s ability to deal with it. And this self-confidence inspires confidence in them as well… If you model being vulnerable, it gives them permission and encouragement to be vulnerable when they need to be too.

The habit of vulnerability in a relationship is a virtuous cycle that builds tremendous confidence and resilience between partners.

As usual, the trick is to start small… If it’s difficult to be vulnerable, practice being vulnerable in a set of much smaller issues until you start to feel more confident and comfortable with it. Then move up to slightly more challenging issues.

For example:

  • Maybe you have a problem around money and finances but it seems too scary to be vulnerable about right now. On a scale of 1-10, sharing your financial mistakes feels like a 9.
  • So leave that one alone temporarily, and find another set of struggles that’s less intimidating. For example: Maybe you struggle with admitting when you’re wrong in conversations. It’s hard to do, but on a scale from 1-10 it’s like a 3 or a 4. Well, if you consistently practice being vulnerable with being wrong in conversations, you’ll start to feel a bit more confident being vulnerable overall.
  • Now you might look for another issue that’s a bit more challenging but still not a 9… say, expressing insecurities about how your partner’s family thinks of you. This is more like a 5 or 6 on the fear scale. But if you practice a few of these, your confidence being vulnerable will continue to grow.
  • Eventually, you’ll find that—almost despite yourself—you want to have that conversation about money despite your fears and insecurities.

The bigger point here is this:

Avoiding painful things is never a sustainable strategy—for individuals or couples.

Vulnerability is about breaking the habit of avoidance and building a new habit of approaching difficult things because, despite the short-term discomfort, the long-term pay-off is worth it.

The only whole heart is the broken one because it lets the light in.
— David Wolpe

Learn More

3 Habits That Will Make You Emotionally Strong

Chronic Worry: A Friendly Mind Guide

Healthy Boundaries: A Friendly Mind Guide