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How to Develop Your Romantic Competence

Different people navigate the complexities of romantic relationships in a variety of different ways, from testing their partner with spilled condiments or asking about a woodpecker, to reminiscing about the good times or attempting to speak their love language (apparently there are seven now, provided they exist at all).

But there is also a set of more tangible skills, known collectively as "romantic competence," which, when properly developed, can serve as tools for building a healthy relationship. Joanne Davila, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, and her team of researchers coined the term in 2009, and the approach has grown in popularity since. Here's what to know about the basics of romantic competence, how to develop the necessary skillset, and why it's important.

What is romantic competence?

Simply put, "romantic competence" refers to the ability to engage in intimate love relationships in a healthy, connective way, says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist focusing on relationships and the author of the forthcoming book The Joy of Imperfect Love: The Art of Creating Healthy, Securely Attached Relationships (March 4, 2024). 

"On a foundational level, the components of romantic competence include the ability to self-reflect, interdependence, and emotional regulation," she says. "However, in my clinical practice, I’ve found that strong romantic competence also requires well-developed skills in the realms of emotional intelligence, connective communication, healthy conflict management, and relationship maintenance skills."

As Davila explains in her 2015 TEDx talk: “We may know what a healthy relationship looks like, but most people have no idea how to get one—and no one teaches us how to do so.” That's where romantic competence comes in.

But, like many other interpersonal skills, those associated with romantic competence take time and effort to develop—which, Manly says, "requires ongoing investment and mindful commitment."

How to develop your romantic competence

There are many factors that influence how people approach relationships, and the same is true of romantic competence. In other words, most relationships don't start with the people involved all being on the same page when it comes to things like meeting each other's emotional needs. Here are a few examples of ways to develop your romantic competence:

Get introspective

One of the key components of romantic competence is the ability to self-reflect, so if this is something you've struggled with in the past, it's time to do some more work. "Partners who develop introspective abilities tend to be less reactive and more aware of how their own strengths and frailties come into play in the relationship," says Manly.

Look out for yourself—and your relationship

Interdependence—which Davila refers to as "mutuality"—involves partners acknowledging and attending to their own needs, and their needs as a couple. "True interdependence fosters a team-oriented attitude that allows each partner—and the relationship—to thrive and expand," Manly says.

Find healthy and productive ways to process your emotions

Emotional regulation is exactly what it sounds like, and something Manly says is critical in intimate relationships. "When one or both partners have a pattern of becoming emotionally disregulated, the relationship itself will feel unsafe," she says.

Keep the lines of communication open

Lastly, this wouldn't be an article about relationships without a section on communication. In this case, it's a concept Manly calls "connective communication," referring to, "the conscious use of verbal and non-verbal behaviors to join with another person."

In addition to being rooted in mutual respect, connection-focused communication requires partners to mindfully engage with each other, with the aim of finding common ground and creating unity rather than division. This requires genuine, active listening, and a conversation taking place without interruptions, verbal abuse, or criticism, she notes.

"When partners are not able to communicate in open, healthy ways, the relationship will stagnate or unravel over time," says Manly. "Connective communication is vital for building intimacy, trust, and safety within a romantic relationship."

Why romantic competence is important in a relationship

As Manly points out, it’s easy to “fall in love,” but it takes work to stay in love. "When we have a high level of romantic competence, we are able to translate loving feelings into loving mindsets and actions that foster lasting love relationships," she explains.

That said, no one's perfect: Even people who have a high level of romantic competence don’t get it “right” all of the time—including ourselves. "However, those who work at earning and maintaining romantic competence find that their relationships are smoother and more joyful over time," says Manly.

Lastly, you don't have to be in a romantic partnership to benefit from developing your romantic competence. "I find that the capacities we need for healthy love relationships also translate into every area of life, like parenting, friendships, [and] work," she says.


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