Relationship skills: a checklist


October 4, 2014 by aggiesez

Mutually satisfying, healthy and fulfilling intimate relationships (and relationship networks) rarely pop out of thin air. They usually work much more smoothly, and are far more satisfying and constructive, when the people involved have strong skills for handling their lives and feelings well — and for treating others with care and respect.

Here’s my checklist of critical skills for great relationships.

These skills can all be learned and practiced, regardless of your current relationship situation or level of experience. They can help any relationship, including your relationship with yourself, or sexually/emotionally exclusive relationships (monogamy). But they are absolutely critical if you’re involved in relationships that are polyamorous/open or otherwise off the standard social relationship escalator. These skills support everyone involved, especially where social/cultural support is lacking.

The bonus is that these skills also support having a great life in general, thriving despite change, and being a force for good in your world.

Generally these skills are what people develop as they mature emotionally — a process that does not depend on age, and that can progress at any pace (or stall, or regress).

These skills often (but not always) come from experience. Fortunately, they can be consciously cultivated independent of (or in preparation for) experience. The ethical and practical advantage of conscious cultivation is that you’ll probably cause less heartache and wreckage, for yourself and others. Just “winging it” with intimate relationships, especially poly ones, expecting to do all your learning on the fly, tends to turn people into crash test dummies.

These skills aren’t just a solo thing, or even a specifically poly thing. But they are an individual matter. They’re about how to conduct yourself responsibly and kindly. Never forget that relationships are comprised of individuals — and that begins with you.

This list is a work in progress. I’ll be evolving it over time, considering input from others, so please comment below.

Don’t be daunted by this list. People always start where they are, and none of us are ever perfect. Not all of these skills are obvious, 101-level stuff. And even the obvious ones aren’t necessarily easy to foster.

Don’t assume that you’re currently acing any of these skills. Ask your friends, partners and metamours how you’re doing — and keep asking. Keep checking in with your own internal compass, too. Wherever you are falling short of where and how you’d like to be, you can make a conscious effort to practice.

Also, how well you’re doing can vary at different points in your life, and in different relationships. You can’t rest on relationship laurels. Things keep changing.

Your mileage may vary! This list is intended to provide guidance and food for thought about what I’ve personally found crucial in conducting relationships and life. Feel free to choose what applies to you, and ignore the rest.

These skills are not listed in priority order. I’ve numbered them only to make it easier to discuss. The ordering and numbering may change over time.


1. AWARENESS OF YOUR OWN FEELINGS, positive and negative, without censoring or squelching them. Be able to name your feelings, and understand their nuanced and shifting mixture. Observe your emotional state without judgment or rationalization.

2. INTROSPECTION, a process of self inquiry and reflection that yields clearer understanding of your true needs, desires, motives, habits, assumptions, and goals. Understand how these give rise to your feelings. Map out your own emotional triggers so you can act, rather than just react.

3. COMMUNICATION. Clear, calm, honest, direct and (as much as feasible) prompt and full discussion and disclosure of information that could affect your relationships, or your partners or metamours, directly or indirectly. Even (especially) the hard, embarrassing or scary stuff, or to express what you’re unsure about or other uncomfortable feelings. Talk directly with whoever you have an issue to resolve — not via intermediaries (such as a shared partner). Be willing and able to listen, even when others don’t exercise good communication skills or are conveying things that are hard to hear. Learn to step away from, or halt, abusive or manipulative interactions. Tune in to nonverbal signals as much as possible, but use your words to confirm and consciously explore. Don’t expect telepathy from anyone.

4. NEGOTIATION AND COLLABORATION. Be willing and able to include in relationship decisions everyone who would be affected by them (including metamours) — and welcome and honor this input. Respect that everyone’s feelings, needs, goals and priorities count. Don’t attempt to impose constraints or expectations on other people or relationships without their consent. Be open to a variety of potential solutions, regardless of who they come from or how they arise. Focus on goals and opportunity more than risk or fear. Discuss and agree upon what conditional terms like “prompt,” “appropriate,” and “warranted” mean to you, and in each relationship you’re in. Be willing to expand your comfort zone, and to compromise. Be willing and able to negotiate the peaceful, positive conclusion or transition of a relationship.

5. HEALTHY BOUNDARIES. Know and communicate about your boundaries; and hear and respect those of other people. Realize when your boundaries have changed or been crossed, and communicate this as calmly and promptly as possible. Be willing to take appropriate, non-hostile, non-punishing steps to enforce your boundaries. Don’t assume others are obliged to you, unless they’ve explicitly and specifically agreed. Don’t expect other people to be your “default” (date, companion, sex partner, emotional support, etc.) simply because of their role/rank in your life (partner, metamour, friend, etc.). Be able and willing to take no for an answer — or yes! Don’t attempt to manipulate, limit or control others. Don’t automatically adopt the opinions or grudges of others. Allow yourself, and others, room to express strong or difficult feelings — with no one taking responsibility for the feelings of others. Respect people’s preferences for privacy (and know your own). Don’t assume that someone else’s feelings, behavior or choices are about, or reflect on, you. Negotiate compromises where boundaries differ — don’t just assume that everyone must conform to the person with the most restrictive boundaries.

6. COMPASSION AND EMPATHY. Generally caring, inquiring about, and being willing to discuss (without judging, adopting, rejecting or voicing agreement/disagreement about) the feelings and perspective of others — even people you don’t like, disagree with, or who are causing you trouble. Be able to assume (or at least imagine, or allow for the possibility of) good intentions, even when others are behaving badly. Take initiative to ask about and express understanding of others’ feelings, without judgment, even when you don’t get this in return.

7. PRACTICAL RESPONSIBILITY.Take care of yourself. Be conscious of risk and don’t behave recklessly — toward yourself, or toward others. Keep yourself as healthy as possible — physically, mentally and emotionally. Maintain awareness of your current circumstances, resources and limitations. Work toward a better future for yourself, and support others in their efforts to solve problems or build a better future. Avoid overextending yourself. Be able and willing to handle your own social, sexual, recreational and professional life. Manage your time and other resources consciously. Try to find help before you’re in a crisis.

8. EMOTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Be able to experience and express your emotions safely, without acting them out in ways that harm others. Avoid making major or hasty decisions, or leap to conclusions, under the influence of strong emotions. Don’t blame others for your feelings or actions. Develop self-soothing skills. Don’t make other people responsible for protecting you from your own triggers, feelings, or issues. Own your shit. Be aware of how your emotional expression (or lack thereof) affects others. Be able to express strong emotions (including negative ones) without berating, smothering, blaming, or draining others. Make it safe for others to express their emotions, even uncomfortable ones. It should feel safe and acceptable for any partner to choose to leave a relationship. Don’t allow toxic apathy, resentments or emotionally abusive patterns to establish or accumulate.

9. SELF SUFFICIENCY. Ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that you can support yourself logistically, financially, and socially. Even if you consciously engage in interdependence with partners, family or others, you should remain capable of fending for yourself reasonably well if those relationships were to end or significantly change — because that’s usually what happens, eventually. Nurture multiple robust support systems and networks (not from fear or distrust, or to hedge your bets, but from simple common sense and in order to not overburden any part of your support network). Don’t treat people like contingency plans. Be open to conscious interdependence as appropriate; no one is an island. If complete self sufficiency is not feasible for you, work to establish and maintain it wherever you can. Don’t cling stubbornly to independence when you really need help.

10. HONOR COMMITMENTS, or be honest (as promptly as possible) when you can’t or no longer wish to, and renegotiate or bow out as warranted. Don’t flake out on dates, meetings, duties. Fulfill your financial or logistical obligations. Be a responsible parent or caregiver. Avoid promising more than you can (or are willing to) offer. Be specific, not fuzzy, in the commitments you agree to or request.

11. AUTONOMY. Feel grounded, rooted, and confident in yourself, regardless of relationship status. Take responsibility for making your own choices, rooted in your own ethics. Don’t require permission, validation, or approval from others — even people close to you, or with whom you share commitments. Be conscious about the true reasons behind your choices. Don’t indefinitely wait for other people’s choices to determine yours. Make your own well being and personal fulfillment a top priority — “Put on your own oxygen mask first before attempting to assist others.” No one owes you anything.

12. ACCOUNTABILITY. Acknowledge to others, as promptly as possible and as warranted, your responsibility for your choices (including mistakes, ethical lapses or unpopular choices) and the impact they have on yourself and others. Apologize when you screw up. Don’t make excuses or try to shift responsibility by blaming others. Where you’ve hurt others through reckless or unethical choices, make amends if possible. Don’t lose sight of your own goals, and check in with yourself about progress toward them, or whether they’re changing.

13. PATIENCE AND FORGIVENESS for yourself and others, when you all inevitably screw up, disappoint, fall short of your goals or ethics, or make slow or inconsistent progress. Give people time and space to work their stuff out — while being mindful of your own needs and boundaries. Be willing to understand and learn from mistakes and problems, and move forward. Don’t expect perfection from anyone. Be willing to take the first steps in repairing damaged trust or relationships.

14. RESILIENCE. Maintain awareness of how you, others, and circumstances are changing. Learn how to find ways to adapt constructively to change without resisting, controlling or denying change.

15. ACCEPTANCE. People and circumstances are what they are, and often we have limited options to enact favorable change. You can only have relationships with people as they are, not as you’d prefer them to be. And you only live in the world that is, not in the world you’d prefer. The complex beauty of life and people is always a mixed bag. Though change can happen, don’t count on it, or predicate your relationships on the possibility of change. Your relationship exists right now, so don’t get too caught up in the past or future. Make your choices to stay or leave, do or not do, based on real life and real people. Don’t rationalize cynicism or laziness as acceptance.

16. JOY, GRATITUDE AND OPTIMISM. All we really have in life are moments, and each moment is gift — or at least, an opportunity, or a possibility. Remember to try to appreciate the moments you’re in, and the people in your life. Tell people what you appreciate about them, at least from time to time. When things are rough, don’t forget the good moments you’ve had. Actively seek to experience and share joy — because without joy, what’s the point?

9 thoughts on “Relationship skills: a checklist

  1. Shelly says:

    This is a great list. I don’t have any additions, but just wanted to share some thoughts. I was in a relationship that caused a great deal of pain both during and after, to myself and many others. It is a relationship, I’m sad to say, where there is little that I *don’t* regret. When I look back, I see that everything that I did, both to myself and to others, that I wish that I could undo, all stems from a conscious decision I made early on to value the relationship over my own happiness. When my happiness was no longer important to me, my self esteem eroded, and with it I lost my ability to set or recognize boundaries. My suffering increased, and with that suffering I lost my strength and ability to support others, to feel real empathy (instead of shame) and to take decisive action to make things better. Every single wrong turn. Every single moment of emotional hysteria. Every single time I turned away from kindness, I think would have been improved, if I had valued my own happiness. So this is a personal rule for me now. I will not be in a relationship where there is not a path to my own self care, and I will not be in a relationship with someone who isn’t willing to leave me if necessary to care for themselves.

  2. […] Often the most important steps towards health can be working on mental and emotional health. In addition to prioritizing self-care, down time, and spending time with loved ones, it is important to reexamine our relationships and make any necessary changes that can help us become more grounded and aware. If we get stuck in the same communication cycles or aren’t getting what we need from our relationships, we won’t have the energy to make necessary changes in other areas of our lives and our physical health can suffer too. This resource is intended for a polyamorous audience, but contains valuable information for anyone wishing to improve communication skills and boundaries, regardless of relationship status: Relationship skills: a checklist. […]

  3. […] much trial and error, I’ve tried my best to develop good relationship skills — including good communication skills. I don’t claim to be perfect, or even great, as a partner […]

  4. […] check out Action Canada’s site on Sexual and Reproductive Health Week. Or read through this checklist for healthy relationships to see if you have the right skills to flourish with a […]

  5. […] recently shared this great arti­cle with me. It’s writ­ten as a guide for per­sonal growth within one’s rela­tion­ships, but I […]

  6. […] shared articles we found with each other. We talked through our questions with our polyamorous BFF. I preemptively […]

  7. Victoria says:

    All the stuff written above is absolutely correct and true but it takes a confident person to do all those steps which the steps are very detailed and work very great if you are very confident person within yourself anybody that has any kind of doubt or anything and try those steps will get hurt but be optimistic so go for it I think it’s great what’s written above

  8. Alex says:

    Not only this list is very good but the definition are really meaningful and helps me to learn on myself. Thank you very much.

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