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Why Good Intentions Aren't Enough for a Good Relationship

Intention without empathy or action is often the path to broken relationships.

Key points

  • Good intentions are not enough for a happy relationship.
  • Good intentions without empathy often cause relationship problems.
  • Good intentions without action often cause relationship problems.
  • Happy relationships include truly listening to and caring about your partner, as well as taking action on your good intentions.
public domain/raw-pixel
public domain/raw-pixel

According to a well-known proverb, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So too is the road to broken relationships.

Here’s a very brief overview of what that often looks like: You try your best to make your partner happy. And they try to make you happy. But over time, the distance between you grows. You both feel unappreciated or misunderstood. Even if you try to make things better, it doesn’t work. Finally, the relationship falls apart.

There are two common patterns at play in these situations:

Intention without Empathy

More than anything, most people want to feel understood and valued in their relationships; and they want their partner to act in ways that show this. While being generous and kind can be wonderful, that’s not enough.

Partners also need to be considerate—to really consider the other person’s perspective. Getting front-row tickets to a concert is an amazing gift—unless their partner does not like the band. Similarly, expensive jewelry is generous, but it may fall short of really making their partner happy if they rarely show interest in their partner’s life.

Many people often feel emotionally unseen and alone in their relationships in small everyday ways. They tell themselves that their partner is trying, even if their partner really missed the mark with their efforts. They tell themselves that their partner didn’t mean anything by an oversight, or by repeated oversights. They tell themselves many times that the problem of being misunderstood is not so bad. But in the end, listening with an open heart is essential for healthy relationships, and not doing this is enough to ultimately end any relationship. (For more on this, watch my video, "Listen with Your Heart.")

Intention with Inaction

Sometimes, despite good intentions, people simply don’t prioritize their partner. They offer to take their partner out for dinner but cancel because of a work commitment. They want their partner to have a happy birthday—but don’t actually make plans. The bottom line is that intentions are great, but they are not actions.

The result of inaction is predictable. Someone may be very understanding, but even the most gracious person will eventually get the message that they are not important. And that never bodes well for a relationship.

Rerouting: Finding the Road to Heaven on Earth

If you want a happy, healthy relationship, you need more than good intentions. Knowing your partner’s true self is central to any deep bond. From feeling that bond, you will want the best for your partner, and you will want to act on this desire.

But again, intentions are not enough. You must actually take action for your partner to feel your love and caring—and your partner must do the same for you.

If you both pour your hearts into your relationship, these things will often happen naturally. Still, sometimes we grow complacent even with those we love. When it comes to relationships, the road to heaven on earth can be paved with truly listening, caring, and then acting on your good intentions.

More from Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.
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