08 Jan The #1 Most Critical Skill You Need For Relationship Success

You might be thinking it’s great communication, but it’s not. It’s not about your background, education, relatives, values or life experiences either. It’s not physical attraction. All these things matter if its a healthy relationship you’re after, but not nearly as much as the most critical skill matters.

little child girl crying and sad about an empty brick wall

You won’t read much about this critical skill, but you should. It’s a skill that many partners in relationships don’t have.

As a marriage therapist I know that relationships can’t be successful without it.

It’s a critical skill that I’ve needed to develop in myself too. Without it, I could never have made my own relationship dreams come true with a marriage that’s healthy and happy and truly thrives.

The #1 critical skill for relationship success is staying in your “adult” self in good times and, especially, in bad.

Take a look in the mirror. You’ll see your current day adult self. This is the “adult you” who works, enjoys a social life, remembers to buy the groceries and pay the bills. When you’re in your adult self you may be serious or silly, but you’re capable of rational thought. Some marriage therapists call this the “functional adult”.

Now take an imaginary look deep inside yourself and you’ll find a smaller, younger, child version of you. Think of this imaginary inner child as a time-traveller. This is you when you were a child. More specifically, this is you at your most vulnerable self. This is you when you experienced feeling scared, angry, hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or sad. Some marriage therapists call this inner child the “adaptive” or “wounded child”. For now I’ll call him or her your “inner child”.

Relationship dysfunction happens when your “inner child” is triggered and in response, hijacks your “functional adult”, taking control of what happens next.

That’s because he or she is a “child” who feels, thinks and acts like a child. This part of you doesn’t have the maturity that adults have (and need) to interact with each other in healthy, mature ways. When your “inner child” takes control, you will very likely think, feel, say, and do things that cause relationship harm.

Your intimate relationship, the one you and your partner share, is the most powerful trigger for your “inner child”. 

That’s why a rational, sensible adult can in an instant, become an irrational, emotional child when triggered by a relationship issue.

You’ll know when you’re hijacked by your “inner child” because you’ll be emotionally flooded.

You’ll be incapable of rational thought and action.

Partners who don’t understand this, and who don’t have the skills to override their “inner child” when triggered by relationship issues, will find that creating a stable, healthy, happy relationship is tough. I see the consequences of this in clinic every day. I know that when partners get hijacked by their “inner child” it’s never ever good for relationship health.

Learning how to manage your “inner child” is a skill. Like any skill, you’ll need to practice before you get really proficient. Start by identifying your own emotional triggers (you can do this by doing family of origin work alone or with a competent family systems trained therapist). You’ll also need to identify your own emotional flooding, and use the “time-out” tool whenever you or your partner are triggered.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.