How To Become a Better Team in a Relationship

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein, written by `Blueheart
– published on December 23, 2022

Do you feel you're working as a team with your partner?

We very often associate teamwork with a business setting. We talk about team building, team dynamics, team bonding. We set goals and measurable targets. And we judge the success of our teams depending on the results we see.

But in reality, working as a team is not only relevant in business. Think about it: at its simplest, teamwork is two or more people coming together to reach a common goal. And where do we see that in action every day? In our personal lives and in our long-term relationships. 

We’re working with our chosen partner to raise our children, to save for a house, to build a life we love, not to mention a million and one smaller things along the way. To do any of these things we need to be pulling in the same direction, listening to one another and finding ways to compromise for the greater good.

In short, we need to demonstrate in our personal relationships some of the qualities we expect from those high-functioning teams we see in a corporate setting.

QUIZ: Do you and your partner make a good team?

When life gives you lemons, work together to make lemonade. When things get tough do you and your partner pull together to resolve the situation? Or do you immediately start running in opposite directions? Let’s take a look.

For each of the questions below, answer:

A. Agree
B. Somewhat agree
C. Somewhat disagree
D. Disagree

1. I understand how important good teamwork is in a healthy relationship.

2. My partner is the first person I turn to when I have a problem that I need help resolving.

3. I believe that my partner will always be there when I need them.

4. My partner and I almost always agree.

5. Within our relationship I feel things are roughly equal.

6. When we do disagree, I am confident that we will be able to find a compromise that satisfy us both.

7. I am confident to express my beliefs, opinions and desires to my partner as I feel they will listen with an open mind and without judgment.

What was your most common response? What does that say about how well you work together as a team?

Mostly “Agree”
You recognize the importance of working together as a team and you are doing well at it. You are content that there is a balance in your relationship in terms of who does what and the mental load you carry. But you are also confident that should the need arise, you would be able to express any perceived disparities to your partner and they would listen.Some might think this means you’ve reached perfection but you know that teamwork takes constant investment and there’s always something new to learn. Read on to find out more or visit the  Blueheart app.

Mostly B
You see the benefits of teamwork, and you love it when everything comes together and you’re working together rather than against one another to achieve your goals. More often than not, you make it work. That said, when life gets busy, frustrations build, things get a little fraught and we focus less on the needs of one another. Sometimes we forget to simply listen.Take this article as your reminder to recap on those skills that are useful to keep in mind if you want to keep that team bond strong, and don’t forget to check out the tips and advice in the Blueheart app.

Mostly C
While teamwork is the ultimate goal, it often feels like you’re a little way off where you want to be. Of course it’s unlikely you’ll agree on absolutely everything, that’s not the point. The point is that when you don’t agree you have the tools in your arsenal to work through things, compromise and share the load.If you scored mostly Cs you’re doing a lot of things right, but if you want to feel you’re moving in the same direction you could perhaps sharpen up a few important skills. Read on to find out more or try the techniques in the Blueheart app.

Mostly D
Never mind teamwork, you’re finding it hard to make anything work at the moment. It often feels like you’re living completely separate lives, rarely considering one another's thoughts and feelings. If you feel the balance is off and you’re carrying a disproportionate amount of the load, now’s the time to make some changes.You’ll find plenty of ideas and tips to help you build useful skills to improve communication with your partner and make things feel more team-y. Why not encourage your partner to read them too.If you feel you could use some support to become a team and support one another better through what lies in store, no matter your result above, you’ll find life-improving tips, techniques and practical advice in the Blueheart app.

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Illustration by Marta Pucci

How balanced is your contribution? 

Do you believe that when all is said and done, the things you bring to the table and the things your partner brings to the table balance one another out?

It’s actually surprisingly important that we feel a sense of fairness in our relationships. It’s vital we feel that we’re both pulling our weight. But in what sense?

To some people, balanced contribution in a relationship might mean earning the same amount of money, or working the same number of hours. To others it might be undertaking an equal share of the childcare duties and other household chores. More often than not though, it’s working together to get all these things into a balance that works for the situation you are in.

That’s not to say that it’s a one-off conversation and everything falls into place. Contributions in a relationship is something that will be ever shifting and changing. And it’s something that needs regular check-ins and open conversations to ensure both partners feel things are working.

Mentally, the feeling that you’re doing more than your partner, or bringing more to the relationship can, over time, become an irritation. Or worse, a real niggling issue. It’s important to focus efforts on the teamwork and compromise required to tackle the problem together.

Mental load: what is it and why does it matter in terms of contribution?

One phrase that’s become popular these days, particularly in the spheres of therapy and relationship counseling, is ‘mental load’. You may previously have heard the terms ‘worry work’, 'intrinsic load' or ‘invisible work’. 

Essentially, these all describe the concept of the number of things we have to hold in our brain at any one time, whether we’re actively thinking about them, trying to remember them, or know we'll need to remember them next week. It’s said that much of this mental load tends to fall to females in our society though that’s not always the case.

Examples of things that contribute to mental load

If you’re employed, work is likely to contribute heavily to your mental load. But mental load is by no means a work only topic. It can include anything that you need to remember to organize or do, as well as those things you're just overthinking. 

That could be booking appointments for the family – dentists, opticians etc. It could be deciding what to eat each evening, shopping for it and / or cooking it. Financial admin, tax completion, bill paying, and household budget management will all fall under this as well as any school-related admin that comes home – including the numerous fancy dress costumes you might be forced to rustle up at seemingly a moment’s notice. 

Mental load can even include parenting guilt or worries about letting down family or friends.

Why is it important to understand mental load and relational contribution?

The problem with mental load is that it’s often the things we’re doing under the radar, usually without mentioning them to our partner, that contribute most to the buildup of overwhelm. We might begin to feel our partner doesn’t notice or appreciate anything we’re doing.

Problems can crop up because mental capacity is limited, we can only cope with so much. If we’re forced to take on more and more, the ‘load’ will quickly overflow. And with that irritability, tension, frustration and resentment can spill over.

But simply acknowledging and understanding the things that each of you do and contribute, and giving one another the opportunity to express any perceived disparity, can go a long way to helping you approach mental load as a team.

Learn more about mental load and learn some team strategies to help you tackle it in our short course Become a Better Team inside the app.

What are the benefits of improving teamwork in your relationship?

There are plenty of great reasons why learning to work better as a team can help to strengthen and improve your relationship. Not least encouraging a change in mindset. 

If you feel you’re both acting independently and not considering one another in decisions and behaviours, the likelihood is you'll continue down that path. The good news is the first step back to togetherness could simply be to start referring to yourself as a team.

They say if you want to give up smoking you should start referring to yourself as a 'non-smoker' rather than 'someone who is quitting smoking'. It’s all about focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want. In the same way, refer to your and your partner as a team, notice and mention when you feel you’ve worked particularly well as a team, and commit to building a better and stronger team for the future.

 There are plenty of other reasons for developing your relationship teamwork:

Better bonding
It stands to reason that when you’re working towards the same goal, you’ll become a lot closer than you would if you were heading in opposite directions. When we stick up for one another and support each other we naturally grow closer. 

And psychologically, when we help someone else, we tend to develop stronger feelings towards them and vice versa. Meaning the more you help your loved ones the more that bond strengthens.

Sharing the burden
Ever feel like all the tedious stuff falls to you? Perhaps the childcare responsibilities - all those school pick-ups and the ‘taxiing’ to various extracurricular activities. Or maybe you always end up feeding and walking the dog with no one else pitching in. 

Whether it’s the monotonous cleaning routine, making sure the bills get paid or tending to the garden, simply feeling like you’re tackling things as a team will mean you’re not having to carry everything on your shoulders.

Learning the art of compromise
There is no magic answer when it comes to learning to compromise. It’s hard, it just is. However, if you want your relationship to keep going from strength to strength, then it’s something you’ll need to learn. Simply working together as a team rather than tackling things individually will improve your chances of reaching an amicable agreement. 

Because if you’ve agreed where you’re trying to get to and you’re both committed to making it happen, you’re more likely to listen better to one another, be more confident in throwing ideas into the mix, and more open to finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Improving your communication skills
When it comes to relationships, there are not many things as important to health and happiness as learning to communicate well with one another. Good communication is an entire topic in itself. But if you can learn to open up, listen well and encourage input from your partner without judgment, you can tackle pretty much anything that comes your way. 

You’ll find that as you learn to work better as a team and appreciate one another’s strengths, your communication skills will naturally improve.

Why working as a team isn’t always as easy as it sounds

Just as in a professional setting, conflicts arise when we’re working as part of a team in our personal relationships. Learning to work better as a team takes time, it takes perseverance, and it takes the resilience to get back up and try again when it doesn’t work.

But the rewards in terms of the health of your relationship going forwards really are worth the effort.

Do you accept each other’s perspective?
It’s important to be open to the perspective of your partner, truly thinking about and considering it. 

Of course, you don’t have to agree with everything your partner says. That would lead to problems in itself. The important thing here is that you are able to be open to hearing their position, whether they are sharing their desires, beliefs or opinions.

Shaking your head, or instantly responding with negativity will cut the conversation dead and could leave your partner feeling hurt, resentful and with the impression you don’t care enough about them.

Instead, it’s important to talk through both ‘sides’, and with practice you’ll find you can respond without defensiveness and negativity, take a step back and come to a balanced conclusion together. One that you can both live with.

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Do you need to work on your emotional intelligence (EI) to improve your ability to compromise?

You’ve heard of IQ, but have you heard of EQ? Emotional quotient - or emotional intelligence - is the ability to notice emotions and to understand, monitor and stay on top of them. This applies both to your own emotions and those of other people. 

People with high emotional intelligence can manage their own emotions successfully, interpreting them and using them to motivate themselves for action. They also possess empathy – the ability to pick up on and read other people’s emotions, informing the way they behave with and interact with others.

Emotional intelligence exists on a spectrum. It’s not something we either have or don’t have, it’s more subtle than that. Sometimes one person in a relationship has a higher EQ than the other, which may lead to frustration. Rather usefully though, it is something that we can learn and improve.

Why is it important to improve your EI?

Having some degree of emotional intelligence is important as it helps us to relate better to others around us. It reduces the likelihood of conflict as emotionally intelligent people are able to exercise control over their emotions, meaning there tends to be less drama surrounding them. 

People with high EI are also less likely to react negatively to criticism and usually have skills in the areas of active listening and mediation. All extremely useful when it comes to healthy communication and openness in a relationship.

High levels of self-awareness and the ability to see things from the point of view of others, and showing understanding and empathy, are wonderful traits to have in a partner, or someone who is in your team.

But it’s important to remember that this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For some people, particularly those with conditions like ADHD and other executive function or mental health disorders, the concept of empathy and EI can be particularly challenging.

But any steps you can take to move towards mastering skills in this area will ultimately improve your relationships and interactions.

Is there an expectation gap in your relationship?

We’ve talked about equality in relationships, sharing mental load and finding balance, but what happens if the inequality is perceived rather than actual?

Allow us to explain.

As humans, we tend to make assumptions, to second guess people, to judge people’s behaviours and attribute meaning to them. The thing is, these assumptions, judgements and meanings often stem from our experiences and history.

Past relationships can interfere with our present one, for example. If a partner has cheated on us previously, we’re more likely to struggle with trust and be suspicious of our current partner’s motives. Equally, depending on our attachment style, we might assume or expect certain things of our partner that may or may not be true.

The expectation gap appears when our reality does not match up with our expectations.Think about this. When you feel frustrated with your partner, or even disappointed in them, is it always because they have really and truly done something wrong, or could it sometimes be because they simply didn’t do what you expected of them? Taking that train a thought a step further, was your expectation fair, or even realistic, in the first place?

Unmet expectations can, over time, cause a buildup of resentment and irritation, so it's important to open up and work on this issue together. Bridging these expectation gaps through understanding and compromise will save those pent-up feelings of annoyance and help you feel like you’re traveling in the same direction again.

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Why doesn’t your partner meet your expectations?

The thing about expectations is that they are often unconscious – we may not even realize we had the expectation there until it wasn’t met, and we felt that disappointment. Our own expectations might be unrealistic or at odds with other things our partner is thinking or doing, or they might not be agreed on or spoken about.

If we have only had our own thoughts about the expectation and haven’t shared those with our partner, it is surely unfair to act with anger or frustration when the expectation is not met.

While we might sometimes assume our partner is able to read our mind it is almost certainly not the case. Opening up and being honest about what you want is a better way to ensure it happens. And if your partner is not prepared to meet your expectation, you will have at least given them an opportunity to explain why.

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