7 Little Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your Relationship (According to Science)
by Catherine Morris | February 14, 2021, updated 6 months ago
With Valentine's Day fast approaching, images of shiny, happy, perfect couples are everywhere. If you've ever been in an adult relationship you'll know that the reality is a lot messier, and more complicated.
Every couple has conflict. It's necessary for a healthy relationship. The trick lies in dealing with that conflict in a way that supports, respects, and uplifts your partner.
Another big obstacle for any relationship is complacency. We get comfortable and we stop doing the work.
If you’re dealing with conflict, complacency or any of the other myriad things that puts partnerships under strain, we have some suggestions. The tips below are tried, tested, and verified by clinical research but, best of all, they're easy to implement and can be done right now to reconnect you and your beloved so that you too can appear to be another shiny, annoyingly happy, couple.
1. Schedule a Date Night
Yes, you may be spending all day, every day, together in these quarantine-ridden times, but we still recommend planning something [i]special for you to do as a couple. Following the same routine is a quick route to complacency and can turn even the closest relationship from sizzling to suffocating.
Time together is crucial. Couples who make that time to engage with each other report more happiness, less stress, and greater satisfaction than those who let work and other demands get in the way.
So make a special meal, curl up on the sofa with popcorn and that Netflix movie you've both been looking forward to, take a bubble bath together—there's lots of ways to engineer a 'date' in the comfort of your own home.
2. Show Some Gratitude
Gratitude is fundamental to our mental wellbeing, leading to more positive emotions, decreased anxiety, and greater resilience to stress. It's also at the heart (pun intended) of healthy relationships.
If love is a drug, feeling appreciated is the soaring high that comes with it. Everyone needs to feel valued, and gratitude makes people feel secure enough in their relationship to voice their concerns, and express themselves.
Research from the University of Georgia surveyed hundreds of married couples and found that those who regularly expressed gratitude were more committed to their marriage and more able to overcome conflict. The researchers also concluded that gratitude has a protective effect in relationships—balancing out friction and making separation and divorce less likely down the line.
Unfortunately, gratitude doesn't always come naturally. Gratitude is a practice, and you have to do the work to reap the rewards. Here's some tips to get good at being grateful:
- Say “thank you” when your partner does something for you, no matter how insignificant—doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, handing you a tissue...
- Use gratitude to head off or minimise conflict—instead of: “you didn't do X”, how about: “you didn't do X, but you did do Y and I'm grateful for that.”
- Keep a gratitude journal—one study showed that couples who kept a journal or diary recording their thankful thoughts were more mindful of their behaviour and more positive about their partners.
3. Get Intimate
No, not that intimate (although, that is a pretty classic way to connect!). Intimacy doesn't have to be X-rated.
Touch is one of the deepest forms of connection and communication we have, and can be used to express all kinds of positive emotions—love, reassurance, comfort, sympathy, appreciation. If you're in the middle of an argument, simply reaching out to take your partner's hand can break a barrier or signal a ceasefire.
Tactile couples tend to have greater empathy for each other and 'emotional contagion'... meaning they are more in tune with each other's feelings. But it's not just the psychological effects that are interesting, touch also produces a measurable response in the body.
One study found that when partners touch their blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormone levels all drop. Even just a few seconds of holding hands increases oxytocin, the happy hormone that's directly related to love and bonding.
4. Listen Up!
Listening seems easy, but couples often get too complacent and distracted to really provide that crucial service to one another.
Don’t give your partner half your attention. If you want them to feel heard, you need to practice your deep listening skills—set aside a chunk of time, put down the phones and devices, make eye contact, and concentrate not just on the words but on your partner's expression, gestures, and tone.
This kind of 'active listening' has three components:
- Expressing interest in what the person is saying (via gestures such as tilting your head, raising your eyebrows and other nonverbal cues)
- Listening without judgment – i.e. don't jump in with phrases like “but it's silly to get annoyed at that.”
- Asking relevant questions as a way of encouraging the person to really open up
Active or empathic listening promotes closeness between partners, and builds emotional resilience by reducing stress—something that's even more important given the current lock downs and resulting strain.
5. Pick a Shared Hobby
Sharing new experiences and learning new skills together helps couples foster a strong bond, so it might be a good idea to sit down and draw up a list of hobbies, activities or experiences you both want to try. It could be fun to make your own lists and then compare them—seeing where your interests align.
- Go hiking and get a little nature therapy together
- Have a couples massage when your local spa opens again
- Take up yoga and work out your issues on the mat
Just don't pick something mundane. Research shows that the shared activity has to be relatively new and exciting to both partners to really be engaged. Picking something you're both passionate about helps you grow together and creates memories that foster emotional intimacy long after the activity is over. Happiness breeds more happiness!
6. Share Some Good News
Shared emotions strengthen a relationship just as much as shared experiences.
It might feel like you're bragging but telling your partner about something good that happened to you (a promotion, a compliment, a task well done) and you're really saying to them, 'I trust you with this, I value your opinion, and I know you'll be happy for me.” You're acknowledging that you're a unit, and good news for one half of the couple is also good news for the other.
Sharing good news in an effort to get a positive response is known in psychological terms as a 'capitalization attempt' and relationship satisfaction heavily depends on whether your partner is supportive and greeting the news with happiness, or ignoring or dismissing it.
Unsurprisingly, revelling in each other's successes, big and small, is one of the most reliable predictors of a relationship's commitment, longevity, and satisfaction.
Forgiveness is a big emotion, but it doesn't have to be about the big things. Did your partner forget to load the dishwasher this morning after promising they would? Skip the kid's homeschooling session? Say something cruel in the heat of an argument?
Forgive it. Right now. Let it go and see how it feels. None of us are perfect, we screw up on a daily basis and it's often our partners that take the brunt of it. Couples who let go of the small stuff have greater relationship satisfaction and are more likely to stay together for the long term.
Why? Because, forgiveness not only decreases the likelihood of conflict, it also encourages you to have more positive feelings towards your partner—the so-called 'goodwill effect'. Rather than getting trapped in a spiral of constant arguments over the same flashpoints (which are often pretty trivial in the big scheme of things), you're more inclined to have compassion for your partner and acknowledge that they are doing their best.
Forgiveness comes with a caveat though—it's not always appropriate to forgive certain behaviours, and everyone needs to draw their line of what's acceptable and what's not in a relationship. Forgiving aggression or abuse can make the problem worse. If you’re unsure whether certain behaviours in your relationship cross the line, reach out to a therapist or counsellor for support and, if you feel unsafe, help is always available via crisis hotlines and local support centres.
Still stuck in conflict mode? Relationship under strain during quarantine? If you and your partner are struggling, book an online session with one of our experienced Which Doctor couples therapists today and talk it out together.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.