Is it Really About the Lemons Relational Intelligence is doable

Relational intelligence, or “RQ,” is a big buzzword lately. Esther Perel has recently re-introduced the concept into popular culture, defining it as “the set of skills that we bring to knowing how to live our relationships.” Understanding the concept of RQ can be difficult. What exactly does it mean to “live our relationships?” Even the name “RQ” suggests it’s an innate trait we either have or don’t. While it may seem elusive, it’s by no means unobtainable. 

A big part of relational intelligence is understanding that conflict always runs deep. While some conflicts are certainly solvable (exactly 31%, according to John and Julie Gottman), many of us mistakenly assume disagreements can be resolved only if one person realizes they’re wrong. People with well-developed relational intelligence know that the content of a fight is often immaterial. Rather than get sucked into the details, they use the conflict to become closer. When they fight over doing the dishes, they eventually become curious about what lies underneath the dishes, so to speak. People who need a little more practice with relational intelligence can get trapped in the particulars.

Take best friends and roommates, Misha and Frankie. While enjoying a cup of coffee at their kitchen table, they discuss their plans for the weekend. Misha plans to make a lemon angel-hair pasta tonight for Frankie–it’s one of their favorite meals. She’s looking forward to spending quality time with Frankie after a tedious work week. Frankie was already going to go grocery shopping, so Misha asks them to pick up two lemons at the store. 

A couple of hours later, Frankie returns from shopping with a five pound bag of lemons. Misha is irate. “I asked you for two lemons! Not an entire sack. What are we going to do with these now? You’re so inconsiderate!” Frankie replies, “What’s the big deal? So we have some extra lemons. Why don’t you go grocery shopping if you’re going to be so picky?” Misha throws up her hands in frustration and Frankie walks away in a huff. Their evening together is ruined. Frankie spends the night watching tv in the den while Misha holes up in the bedroom.

Conflicts like this happen all the time. The problem is not so much the conversation but what happens next. After distancing themselves from each other all night, Misha and Frankie eventually decide to “agree to disagree” so they can enjoy the rest of the weekend. But it isn’t long before Misha and Frankie get into it again. Today it’s a disagreement about lemons; tomorrow, it’s about laundry. They’re exhausted and exasperated and just want the fighting to stop. 

A relationally intelligent dyad reacts much differently. Take Harley and Sam. They have a similar disagreement. Sam’s usually in charge of grocery shopping, but Harley sometimes takes over when Sam is occupied. When Harley goes grocery shopping, he often doesn’t get exactly what’s on the list. Most of the time, Sam and Harley are very respectful and kind to each other and state their needs in ways that don’t make each other defensive. But sometimes, they fight similarly to Misha and Frankie. The difference is, after taking about twenty or so minutes of space, Sam and Harley have a conversation like this: 

Sam: “I’m sorry, Harley. I shouldn’t have criticized you. I just get really frustrated when I don’t feel listened to. It makes me feel like you don’t care.”

Harley: “That makes sense. I never want you to feel that way. I care about you so much. But sometimes, I feel like I just can’t do anything right. I feel like I’ll never be enough.”

Sam smiles: “You’re everything I need, Harley.”

Harley smiles back and jokingly says, “Well, everything and a sack of lemons!”

Sam and Harely laugh and get back to enjoying their weekend. 

The difference between these two couples is that Sam and Harley know it’s not about the lemons. They know that a conflict over fruit represents a theme in their relationship that needs further exploration. In fact, Sam and Harley have had similar conversations many times over the years. They both know each other and themselves quite well. Harley knows Sam’s parents, though well-meaning, would often dismiss his needs and emotions. So Harley understands why Sam sometimes reacts strongly if he doesn’t feel heard, even if it’s not what Harley intended. Sam knows that Harley came from a very loving family but had two high-achieving parents with very high expectations of him. So Sam knows that when Harley makes a mistake, it’s easy for him to start feeling down on himself, even though Sam thinks the world of him. 

Sam and Harley are a relationally intelligent couple. What makes them relationally intelligent? 

They know how and when to take space and self-soothe. They know how to speak up productively and listen compassionately. They can engage vulnerably while still standing up for their needs. They understand how early family dynamics impact their self-image and how this affects their relationship. They know how to validate their partner, even if they don’t wholly agree with them. Ultimately, they know how to care for their relationships. 

While it may seem difficult to imagine having a conversation like this with your partner, friend, or family member, it only takes one person to interrupt a pattern and create a new dynamic. The truth is that building relational intelligence is just a matter of learning and practicing some new skills.

Maybe you’ve asked yourself, “Why is it so hard for me to communicate and express my feelings?” “Why are my partner and I always having emotionally-charged conversations?” or, “How can I feel more emotionally connected to my partner?” If so, join me and my co-facilitator, Lucy Sunday, in our upcoming class, Building Relational Intelligence (BRI), where you will learn new skills to break free from ineffective patterns and build healthier, richer relationships.

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