Whether you've been dating someone a while, currently live with a partner, or are part of a long-married couple, you might be seeking ways to better the relationship you have.
Unlike holiday love stories and romantic comedies in which all is resolved after one or two conflicts, maintaining thriving relationships takes some effort. But it doesn’t have to be difficult.
With the daily grind of responsibilities and frayed nerves, it’s understandable why dealing with partner issues falls to the bottom of your list. Just keeping up with all of life's responsibilities—work, kids, family, friends, neighbors, your home—is taxing, and many of us are plain tired. Especially during difficult times, it’s easier to avoid facing your stalling relationship or eroded intimacy issues.
There are a few tried-and-true methods that work to improve relationships: be a good listener, carve out time together, enjoy a quality sex life, and divvy up those pesky chores. While these have been proven effective by relationship experts, you can also branch out to these seven unexpected ways to bond and enhance your relationship.
Spend Time Apart
It sounds counterintuitive as a way to improve your relationship, but take a break from your partner. Everyone needs their own space and quality time outside a relationship. Dating and marriage counselors remind us that you deserve that breathing room.
Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, is a therapist and author who has two popular podcast series. In her book, "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence," she stresses how important space is in relationships.
When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. Thus, separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
— ESTHER PEREL, MA, LMFT
Individuals need time on their own for personal growth and to maintain independence within the confines of a relationship. While individuals flourish, the relationship itself benefits. In fact, it’s key to successful marriages.
Whether that means reading alone or taking a walking in the park, do it. Or maybe you want to attend a workout with a friend.
The outcome is your partner’s bothersome habits will trigger you less. You'll find yourself feeling refreshed and being more patient. Your special partner has time to miss you, too.
Other boons: you’ll bring more to the relationship itself. Stepping away regularly prevents your time together from growing stale. Instead, it allows for curiosity, more interesting conversations, and growth. In effect, taking time apart will enliven the relationship dynamic.
Go to Sleep at the Same Time
Perhaps you’ve already read that most American adults are not getting the seven to eight hours per night of healthy sleep they need. But did you know that going to bed at different times negatively impacts you and your partner?
For a healthier relationship, head to bed at the same time. There are night owls and early birds who live on different schedules, and then there are those who work in bed while the other is watching Netflix in another room. Whatever the situation, synchronize your bedtimes.
According to Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach, 75% of couples don’t go to bed together, which has negative effects. Those with mismatched sleep patterns report more conflict, less conversation, and have less sex than those who go to bed together.
This doesn’t give you the go-ahead to dive under the covers and scroll through your social media while you’re both in bed.
Research Shows That Couples Are Impacted By Screen Time
A Pew Research survey found that people are bothered by their partner’s time on mobile devices:1
- 51% of people who are married, living together, or in a committed relationship say their partner is distracted by their cellphone when trying to converse with them.
- 4 in 10 people are at least sometimes bothered by their partner's cellphone usage frequency.
Sometimes you have to dig deep to be vulnerable. “Couples may find it surprising, but if each one becomes curious about one's own blind spots, discovers them, and then is courageous enough to share that vulnerability, it can help create deeper intimacy,” advised Meredith Resnick, LCSW, creator of Shamerecovery.com.
Resnick added, “A blind spot doesn’t necessarily mean a fault or a weakness, but rather a deeply held belief about oneself or about how a relationship is supposed to work, or how love is expressed. The belief is so deep, we don’t even realize we have it, hence the term blind spot."
What is an example of blind spots in relationships? Resnick says, “For example, one partner might discover that their tendency to micromanage people is actually related to their fear of abandonment—controlling the schedule of a loved one as a way to never be alone.
"Sharing this with a partner can be the first step to changing this pattern. This should be a loving process that builds trust, not one that causes shame," says Resnick.
Create Novel Experiences
Although eating your favorite pizza every Saturday night and incorporating rituals in your life strengthens relationships, boredom does creep in. Therefore, you should shake things up—pepper your routine with unpredictable date nights and moments of fun.
Continuing with spontaneity many years into a marriage is important, according to relationship expert, professor, and author Terri Orbuch, PhD. Her book, "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great," is based on findings of a groundbreaking study she directed that followed 373 married couples for over 20 years. She found many spouses felt like they were in a rut.
If adventurous dates like rock climbing or learning a new language are out of the question now, can you buy a trampoline or do something unexpected? Maybe you can find other ways to bring excitement to your relationship.
Psychologists say to focus on novelty, variety, and surprise. Research shows that after weeks of interesting dates, participants rekindled their love, and the couples felt closer.2
Surprise With Little Things
Small gestures keep the spark alive and remind your partner you are thinking about them. Happy couples are kind to each other. Giving or volunteering to help out is a plus. In fact, acts of kindness are powerful, and those that are unplanned tend to fuel overall well-being.
Honor your partner’s love language. For example, they hug you because they value physical touch. You’d be even happier if they cleaned up the living room or spent more time away from their desk, because you value acts of service and quality time together. In relationships, learn how you can show your partner your love in a way that your partner values.
Developed by Gary Chapman, PhD, an author and counselor, the Five Love Languages are:
Ways to Surprise Your Partner
- Bring a mug of coffee to bed
- Volunteer to do one of the other’s chores
- Send a provocative text
- Hug your sweetie
- Meet your loved one at work
- Gift your partner with chocolate
- Leave lingerie on the bed
- Make eye contact and actively listen
- Wrap up a small gift
- Pen “I love you” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror
- Leave a cute sticky note on the front door or car steering wheel
While nobody wants to argue with someone they love, disagreements are, in fact, healthy. It’s how you fight, and if you fight fairly and constructively, that matters.
John Gottman, PhD, who spent forty years as a researcher and clinician studying over 3,000 couples, sheds light on how to develop a more loving style of disagreeing. The worst thing you can do is roll your eyes or show contempt. So, what works?
Soften the Start-Up
The emphasis is on your tone and intention. Speak softly and gently. Politeness goes a long way. What’s key is to speak without blame. Avoid a defensive or critical remark which can cause a conflict to escalate.
Edit What You Say
Don’t blurt out every negative thought, especially when you discuss touchy topics. Remember that you love the other and maintain respect.
Offer Repair Attempts
A repair attempt is a statement or action meant to diffuse an argument.3 This could be using humor, touching the other person, or offering an empathetic or caring remark like, “This must be difficult for you to talk about.”
You could also find common ground, like saying, “Well, we have different approaches, but we both want the same thing.” Or offer signs of appreciation throughout difficult conversations.
In his book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," Gottman calls repair attempts a secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples. His research shows “the success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether [a] marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.”
Focus on the Positives
Healthy and happy marriages offer a rich climate of positivity. For every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five or more positive interactions.
So, try to offer five times as many positive statements in your discussions, including your arguments and disagreements. For example, a happy couple will say, “Well, we do laugh a lot” instead of “We never have any fun.”
Share a Loving Story
While it might surprise you, reminiscing can help enhance your relationship. Conversations that start with “Remember when” and trek down memory lane—about your first date, your first home, and funny memories—lead both of you back to good feelings. Your partner will be reminded of why they fell in love with you in the first place.
Another way to repair and improve your relationship is to show appreciation for certain traits your partner possesses. Always add anecdotes to demonstrate these amazing traits.
Because high stress levels can lead to disconnection, we tend to focus on negative stories and what your partner is not doing. If you’re feeling unappreciated, appreciate others. Retrain your attention on connection and positive stories.
These surprising but impactful techniques above can help you improve your relationship. Interestingly enough, research shows it’s not personality or compatibility that keeps couples together. Instead, it’s how a couple interacts—how they speak to each other, how they get along with each other—and if they focus on building a relationship together that creates successful relationships.