Most people don’t realize how much research exists about what you can do to improve your relationship. So often couples feel so imbedded in the routine of their relationship, they assume that any noticeable difference in the quality of their relationship would require hard complicated work. In reality, science tells us that there are some simple things that are likely to give your relationship quite a boost. Most are easy and fun to do, so why not give them a try?!
1. Self Expanding Activities
Self-expanda-whataties? According to the theory of self-expansion, we all have an innate drive to grow as individuals. Relationships are one of our primary methods of expanding our own sense of self, as we learn from another person and they expose us to new and different experiences. Studies show that we’re more satisfied with relationships that contribute to our growth, but as time goes on self-expansion in your relationship can dwindle. If you and your partner get stuck in rut of mundane routine, you may no longer feel like your partner is helping you grow. In fact, you might even feel like they are holding you back, which can lead you to look for sources of expansion outside the relationship (like maybe even a new relationship – read more about the influence of self expansion on infidelity here). How do you stop this from happening? Make participating in self-expanding activities a priority in your relationship. What are self-expanding activities? Anything that’s new and exciting. The idea is that you’re engaging in things together that make you both grow as individuals, and thus grow closer together.
Here are some ideas:
- Travel some place new
- Take a class together
- Try a new restaurant
- Go on a hike
- Try to learn a new hobby together
- Go sky diving
- Run an obstacle course together
- Literally ANYTHING new and exciting!
2. Building your Love Maps
Relationship researcher and author John Gottman suggests couples build up their “Love Maps”. What does that mean? Your Love Map is your guide to your partners internal world. Your knowledge about the ins and outs of who your partner is as a person provides the soil for friendship and intimacy to grow. It’s little things (what’s their favorite ice cream flavor?), and everyday things (who’s giving them a hard time at work?), and big things (what are their fears?). Gottman has found that couples in successful relationships have well developed Love Maps; they have a rich and deep understanding of their partner’s world. This understanding also helps them handle stressful situations better. So get to know your partner! Again, and again, and again!
Click here for some questions shown by research to build intimacy between two people.
3. Watching Movies Together
No really. Recent research suggests that watching movies together might be as beneficial as participating in couple’s therapy (which hopefully doesn’t catch on or I’ll be out of a job!). Researchers provided couples with a list of 47 movies featuring long-term romantic relationships, and were told to watch one per week for a month and then discuss it together using questions provided. Researchers were surprised to find that after three years this turned out to be just as effective as established therapeutic methods at reducing divorce; cutting the divorce/separation rate in half, from 24%-11%. Pretty big pay off for a few movie nights! Give it a try with your partner – click here for the list of movies and questions used.
4. Having More Sex
National surveys have shown correlations between the amount of sex a couple is having, and their satisfaction in the relationship, and risk of separation. Now this research is correlational, so it’s possible that having less sex makes you unhappy in your relationship, while it’s also possible that being unhappy in your relationship makes you want to have sex less, as it’s also possible that confounding factors (i.e. financial stress, health issues, etc.) might be causing a negative impact on happiness in your relationship and sexual frequency. Regardless, it seems happy couples are having more sex. One reason may be that the open communication required for a satisfying sex life also spills over into healthy communication in other parts of the relationship. Sex is also an exciting physical activity that can contribute to a couple’s sense of expansion as discussed above, and produces all sorts of hormones that makes us feel great and close to our partner (testosterone, dopamine, oxytocin). Sex is also a great stress reducer, and stress is related to decreased relationship satisfaction. So how much sex should you be having? Research shows it’s really a matter of you and partner’s preferences. In other words, how the amount of sex you’re having compares to the amount you or your partner would like to be having is what really makes the difference in relationship satisfaction. And it’s important to know that it only takes one of you being dissatisfied with sexual frequency to decrease both of your satisfaction in the relationship. What we do before and after sex is important too. Showing more affection after sex (i.e. spooning, pillow talk, etc.) relates to increased sexual satisfaction, and increased relationship satisfaction (Muise, Giang, & Impett, 2014). Couples instructed to kiss more frequently for 6 weeks also reported more relationship satisfaction compared to a control group (Floyd, Boren, Hannawa, Hesse, McEwan, & Veksler, 2009).
So here’s some tips:
- Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood”. Often times even if you don’t feel in the mood to start, you get there. Lean into it (metaphorically… and, well… yeah).
- Having more sex makes you want more sex. Try increasing the frequency incrementally.
- Talk about it! Couples who communicate openly about likes and dislikes in the bedroom have increased sexual satisfaction.
- Check this out for some sexual intimacy exercises.
5. Spending an Extra 6 Hours a Week Together
Analysis of interviews with couples found that those with successful marriages spent about an extra 6 hours a week together. Sound like a lot of time to set aside? Well actually, the 6 hours is an accumulation of a some quicker easier habits. Here’s the breakdown:
- Take an extra 2 minutes every day before work to say goodbye and ask something about your partner’s coming day (10 minutes per week).
- Take an extra 6 seconds to hug and kiss your partner when you reunite at the end of a day, and then chat with your partner for about 20 minutes. (1 hour, 40 minutes)
- Take 5 minutes everyday to express gratitude to your partner (35 minutes per week)
- Take 5 minutes everyday to give your partner physical affection, especially before falling asleep (35 minutes per week)
- Set aside 2 hours for a weekly date night (2 hours per week)
- Set aside 1 hour at the end of the week to discuss what went well that week, and what didn’t, as well as plan for the week ahead. Ask your partner how you can show them love and support over the coming week (1 hour per week)
Meditating has many beneficial effects for relationships. Research has shown that meditation is related to improved stress management, and stress is known to negatively effect relationships. In addition, meditation has been associated with increased empathy and understanding others, which can positively effect healthy communication within a relationship. Meditating helps a person acknowledge and observe their thoughts and emotions, before reacting to them, therefore enabling them to make more conscious decisions about how they want to react. This is particularly beneficial when discussing topics of conflict within a relationship, because it can help couples avoid negative communication patterns such as defensiveness and criticism, and opt for healthier more supportive communication styles such as active listening and responsiveness. Going back to our self-expansion theory – meditating together can provide quality time and widen your sense of self as individuals and as a couple. In fact, couples that have participated in mindfulness meditation training programs have reported feeling increased closeness and intimacy with their partner. Read this to find out more mindfulness meditation!
7. Writing about Your Conflicts
Eli Finkle and colleagues conducted a study where they had couples write about a conflict they experienced within their relationship from an objective stand-point, for about 7 minutes. Couples did this once every 4 months for about a year, and reported about the quality of their relationship. Those that participated in the writing exercise were able to avoid the decrease in marital satisfaction, passion, and sexual desire that was reported by the control group, and that research has shown relationships in general suffer. In other words, stats show that relationship satisfaction peaks early on and slowly declines over the course of the relationship, but this simple writing task enabled participants to maintain their current level of satisfaction long-term. So exactly was the writing task?
- “Think about the facts and behaviors of a specific disagreement that you have had with your partner over the past 4 months. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it.”
- “Some people find it helpful to take this third party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?”
- “Despite the obstacles to taking a third party perspective, people can be successful in doing. Over the next four months, please try your best to take this third party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next four months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?”
(A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal)
8. Creating Shared Meaning
John Gottman’s 40+ years of researching relationships has lead him to find that the couples who are really masters at their relationship have found a “shared meaning” for their relationship and their life together. You and your partner may have different thoughts about life and the future, you may have fundamental differences of personality that can cause conflict, and you may have different ways of handling various situations, but having a shared meaning keeps you connected, in-tune with one another, and gives you common ground to build on. You create your shared meaning through rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. You can proactively explore and develop the rituals, roles, goals, and symbols in your relationship, and begin building the meaning of the relationship early on.
Here’s some things to explore with your partner:
- What daily, weekly, annual rituals are important to you? Sharing a morning coffee? Weekly date night? Yearly vacation?
- What holidays are important, and what do they mean to you?
- Do we share dinnertime together, and what’s the meaning of dinner time?
- How do you see the role of husband, wife, partner, parent?
- What goals do you have for yourself and your partner?
- What’s a life dream of yours?
- What symbols represent your relationship?
- What does “home” and “family” symbolize for you?
I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake, but research has a lot more to tell us about how we can improve our relationships. If you’re wondering whether there’s research regarding any more specific issues, there probably is! Let me know what you’re curious about, and I’ll try my best to share some information!