The closer our relationships, the happier and healthier we are and the longer we live. That’s a pretty compelling case for keeping our bonds strong. Of course, relationships take work, but here at Thrive, we’re big believers in small behavior changes that yield big results. (This month Thrive’s staff is testing Microsteps, research-backed, too-small-to-fail mini habits that you can easily integrate into your life right away.)
So we asked the experts at The Gottman Institute (who are also behind Thrive’s popular relationship column, Asking for a Friend) to draw on the Institute’s decades of groundbreaking relationship research and offer up their best small tips for improving your relationship this year. Happily, some of the best tips for great relationships are blissfully easy to implement.
Remember you’re on the same side
“The ability to repair conflict is your greatest tool. There is no need to fear conflict. The gift of working through conflict is greater closeness. Remember that you are on the same team. Act like it. Having different perspectives, whether about parenting, money, sex, religion, politics, or cleanliness, is part of life. These differences can enrich your togetherness and be an asset in making effective life decisions.
And from budding Gottman therapists, my 6 and 8 year olds:
—Karen Bridbord, Ph.D.
Heed the magic ratio
Remember the 5:1 ratio: Notice and say 5 positive things you appreciate about your partner before you gently express a complaint or concern.
—Michael McNulty, Ph.D.
Work together on a shared goal
Find something bigger than both of you to dedicate yourselves to together in the new year: volunteer, get involved in your community, or support a nonprofit organization or project.
In his research, John Gottman found that couples in happy, stable relationships find ways to create shared meaning. Shared meaning is about our roles, goals, and vision as a couple. For several years, my wife and I worked on a project supporting the economic, social, and civic development of peasant women in Peru. This shared vision and project helped to draw us closer and to create a sense of shared meaning and purpose in our relationship.
—Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT
Think more pro-relationship thoughts
“Start to think more pro-relationship thoughts. For example, finish this sentence: “I’m lucky my partner is in my life because…” This focuses on cherishing your partner rather than focusing on negative thoughts about your partner. The benefit is that it encourages commitment and safeguards against betrayal.”
—Stacy Hubbard, LMFT
Reflect the positive
“Be like a mirror, and let your partner know exactly what you see, feel, and experience about them that is beautiful. “I love your voice, the shape of your hands, how good you are with money, etc.” Let your partner know exactly how happy you are to be with them. We never get tired of knowing we’re valued and cherished. Gottman research shows that the happiest couples communicate genuine admiration and appreciation toward their partners every day.
—Jenny TeGrotenhuis, LMHC
Make eye contact when you’re happy
“Make eye contact when you are relaxed and happy. Open your eyes while making love, or enjoy a pause in conversation to gaze into your partner’s eyes. When you’re happy, oxytocin will be present in your bodies and the extra eye contact will deepen your bonding. It’s important to continue to repair and build the bonds of attachment in our nervous systems that stress and conflict can strip away.”
—Jenny TeGrotenhuis, LMHC
Ask more questions
“Strong relationships have strong love maps. In other words, they are interested in each other, in their partner’s thoughts, feelings, joys, and struggles. A way to do this might be to set aside some time each week and ask each other open-ended questions. Questions like, What are your dreams for this year? or What adventures do you wish we could have? can lead to some wonderful conversations. Give it a try.”
—Don Cole, D.Min.
Notice and share
“We get so consumed by the day-to-day activities of life that we don’t take the time to notice the many positives happening every day in our relationship. And, on occasion, if we do perhaps notice, we don’t share this with our partner. The one small thing you can do for your relationship this year that can make a big difference is to notice and then to share. Pause, be intentional, and begin to notice what your partner is doing right, what warms your heart, and what is attractive to you. But don’t stop there. Share this with them—every day!”
—Dori Krasnopolsky, LCPC
Make fun a priority
“Affective neuroscience informs us that we have neural circuits related to emotional and relational well-being—play is one of those seven emotional command systems.”
—Robert Navarra, Psy.D.
“Put a sticky pad and pen next to your toothbrush and when you wake up to brush your teeth, write a note of gratitude and appreciation to your partner and stick it to their side of the mirror. Changing the overall climate of your relationship begins with you and how you choose to look at your partner. Your thoughts become your actions and your actions become your reality!”
—Laura Heck, LMFT, MA
“Doing something physically active with your partner will not only benefit your personal physical and mental health, but it may improve your relationship as well. In the book Love Me Slender, authors Bradbury and Karney note that eating right and moving more is the new mantra of the 21st century but the benefit you get from doing this individually can be exponentially larger if you also make it a foundation of your intimate relationship. In other words, couples who eat right and move more together gain many additional benefits that outweigh the individual gains. In fact, relationship stress can increase the risk of health challenges even if you are doing everything right on the health side. Being physically active together also increases fun, laughter, closeness, and motivation to stay fit and on track, which in turn feeds each partner’s ability to stay healthy and happy. This is a win-win tip for both sides, your physical and relational health, and for both partners.”
—Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D.
Mind your words
“Practice this wisdom from Rumi: ‘Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’ One of the important big ideas from the work of The Gottman Institute is that the way we speak has a profound impact on another’s ability to listen to us. Kindness, honesty, and feeling listened to and cared for are the seeds of lasting love.”
—Jonathan Shippey, LMFT
Learn a new game
“Find and learn a new game together. As cheesy as it sounds, couples that play together, stay together. Two of my favorite board games for couples are Lost Cities and Chickapig, both of which require players to learn new twists on traditional games. You might also consider frisbee golf or ping pong. Emphasizing laughter and fun and novelty is a great way to minimize the impact of everyday life stress.”
—Zach Brittle, LMHC
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