Home » Joanne Davila: Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships at TEDxSBU (Transcript)

Joanne Davila: Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships at TEDxSBU (Transcript)

Joanne Davila at TEDxSBU

Here is the full transcript of Joanne Davila, an expert on romantic relationships and mental health, on Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships at TEDxSBU conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships by Joanne Davila at TEDxSBU


Intimacy, security, respect, good communication, a sense of being valued — these are some of the things that most people would agree make for healthy relationships. And researchers would agree, too — there’s a large body of literature on romantic relationships that’s identified the features of healthy relationships. And the list I just provided contains many of them.

Researchers also agree on what makes for unhealthy relationships – things like: fighting so much that you just can’t work things out; not being able to go to your partner for support when you need it; contempt; criticism; hostility; violence.

When these problems happen in relationships, they can cause significant unhappiness. They can lead to the end of relationships and divorce, and they can literally make people physically and emotionally sick. This is why it’s so critical that people have healthy relationships.

But there’s a problem: how many people know — I mean, really know what to do on a day-to-day basis to create healthy relationships? My point is this: 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. We need to teach people how to have healthy relationships.

Now, you know when we typically do so, after it’s too late — it’s called couples therapy. I do couples therapy and it can be a wonderful thing. But many people come to couples therapy with so many ingrained problems and patterns that they just can’t change; it’s too late.

You know, when else we try to teach people how to have healthy relationships? Right before they get married; it’s called premarital education. And this is a good idea: teach people how to have a good relationship while they’re still happy, presumably, and it can work.

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But in my opinion, it’s still too late. Why? Because people have already selected the person they want to commit their life to. What if they selected poorly? No amount of premarital education can make up for a bad partner choice.

So the ways that we’ve tried to teach people how to have healthy relationships have been limited, because they fail to address three important things: genuinely knowing what you want and need in a partner in a relationship; selecting the right person; and developing and using skills right from the beginning. And I don’t mean the beginning of any particular relationship; I mean the beginning beginning, like as soon as possible. We need to teach people, especially young people, how to have healthy relationships.

Now, towards this end, my colleagues and I have developed a skills-based model of relationship functioning that we believe can help people create the things that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the behaviors that lead to unhealthy ones. We’ve identified three skills: insight, mutuality and emotion regulation, that form the basis for what we call romantic competence.

Romantic competence is the ability to function adaptively across all areas, or all aspects of the relationship process, from figuring out what you need to finding the right person, to building a healthy relationship and to getting out of relationships that are unhealthy. I’ll tell you more about the skills in a minute. But, first, let me say we didn’t just make this up out of the blue.

We identified the skills based on a thorough review of theory and research, and the skills really represent the commonalities across the major theories and research findings on healthy relationships. And because they represent the commonalities, we think they really can help people with all the different parts of the relationship process, and with all different people whether people that are in a relationship or not.

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So let me tell you about the skills. The first one is insight. Insight is about awareness and understanding and learning. So with insight, you’ll have a better idea of who you are, what you need, what you want, why you do the things you do. So let’s say you’re being really snappy to your partner.

With insight, you might notice or realize that it’s not that your partner’s doing anything, it’s actually that you’re really stressed out at work. And what you really need is to relax a little bit, so it doesn’t bleed out over into your relationship.

Insight will also let you know your partner better. Let’s say, your partner shows up late for a date. With insight, you’ll know why. For example, maybe your partner is late for everything — it’s nothing about you, it’s nothing about the relationship; that’s just who your partner is.

With insight, you’ll be able to anticipate the positive and negative consequences of your behavior. For example, you’ll know that if you send that nasty text, it’s not going to go well. Maybe you better make a phone call instead.

With insight, you’ll be able to learn from your mistakes in ways that allow you to behave differently in the future. So maybe you’ll recognize that you’re the kind of person who tends to jump in really quickly. You get wrapped up in the romance of things and then things don’t go well. So you might be able to say, well, you know what the next time I’m just going to take things a little more slowly and not repeat the same mistake.

And with insight, you’ll have a better understanding about what’s really right for you in a relationship. Maybe you’re the kind of person who really needs a monogamous relationship. You’re not OK with your partner seeing other people. Or, maybe you’ll realize it’s just the opposite, that you’re not ready to settle down and you need a partner who’s OK with that; so that’s insight.

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The second skill is mutuality. Mutuality is about knowing that both people have needs and that both sets of needs matter. With mutuality, you’ll be able to convey your own needs in a clear, direct fashion that increases the likelihood that you’ll get them met.

So let’s say you have to go to a really stressful family event and you’d like your partner to be there with you. You might say directly, you know, this is going to be stressful for me. I’d really love for you to be there; you’ll be a good buffer for me; is there any way you can clear your schedule to come with me?

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