The test of love comes over time, the time beyond the courtship and honeymoon phase. It is in the long-term relationship that our capacity to maintain the vitality and energy of love is challenged. Consequently, thinking that love is self-sustaining is a mistake. It is a position that comes with a price, and the price is likely steep, such as relationship unhappiness or a breakup.
Here are relationship suggestions that are evidence-based and have stood the test of time for keeping a relationship energized:
Commit: Are you for your partner or against your partner? This may sound like a strange question, but many people in relationships act like they are enemies. They put a negative spin on each other, just as enemies do. If you decide you want to love your partner, you can choose to view him or her lovingly. Your partner’s actions are subject to your explanation; we all give meaning to the behavior we view. Why not attribute a positive explanation to your partner’s behavior whenever possible?
Disagree Effectively: An interesting research finding is that couples who report strong relationship satisfaction actually disagree more often than those couples who are less happy with each other. Their secret? They disagree better! Successful repair attempts include: owning your part in a conflict; using humor; stroking your partner with a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”); backing off when the interaction is going south; being skillful and receptive to compromise as well as offering signs of appreciation for your partner along the way like, “I really appreciate and want to thank you for…” It is especially important to have an exit strategy when the discussion is going downhill in order to avoid saying things that are regretful. That is a tactic of successful couples.
Foster Collaboration: Researchers have found that in a happy relationship, couples make five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship: “We laugh a lot” as opposed to the negative “We never have fun”. A relationship succeeds to the extent that both partners can accept influence from each other. If a woman says, “Do you have to work Thursday night? Jimmy has a parent conference and I would like you to be there,” and her husband replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them,” this man, one of the premier researchers of couple relationships suggests, is in a shaky marriage. The same applies to a woman who is not mutually accommodating.
Create Trust: Trust is at the foundation of any relationship. The need to trust and be trusted continues throughout the life cycle. At every developmental level, we are more likely to have good relationships and succeed in whatever we do when our relationships are based on trust. In contrast, whenever trust breaks down, as psychologists well know, individual development is inhibited. We can’t grow as fully as individuals, and we are less able, even unable, to have satisfying love relationships.
Speak from the Heart and Respond Empathetically: In love relationships, feelings are the voice of the heart; real openness strengthens intimacy. A love relationship does not center solely on sharing the rent or household chores or even co-parenting, it is distinguished from other less-involved relationships by emotional involvement. When you tell your partner what you are feeling and speaking from the heart, you are being intimate and that strengthens the relationship connection. Just as being transparent with your partner strengthens intimacy, letting your partner know that you understand him or her by responding empathetically is one of the most powerful tools for keeping your relationship emotionally close.
Over-learn Relationship Skills: Relational competence cannot be improved overnight. The emotional brain learns new patterns over weeks and months, not days. We all learn a new skill more effectively if we have repeated chances to practice it over an extended period of time. Research indicates that actual practice has double the impact on job performance as the presentation of concepts alone. This is a critical finding that applies equally to relationship competence.
Seek help early. Just as good feelings are based on positive behaviors from your partner and are supportive of satisfaction, bad or hostile feelings that threaten relationship happiness are created when the partner engages in a high frequency of negative behaviors. Early intervention is less painful and more effective than intervention in a relationship that has been worn down over a long period. Take action. A pattern of negative behavior raises a red flag. Seek help!