Relationships are like cars, requiring continual attention, care, and maintenance to ensure everything is running smoothly. And each new day, month, and year you spend with your partner presents the perfect opportunity for a tune-up.
If you’re looking to improve your relationship right now, experts say there are a number of strategies you can use to not only grow closer, but also to strengthen your communication, bounce back more quickly from conflicts, and even start to re-harness that long lost spark you had in the early stages of dating.
Obviously, the ongoing pandemic has posed new hurdles for couples to overcome — from navigating safety concerns together to coping with financial setbacks, all while working from home together in many cases. That said, there is a bright spot of hope for what’s to come: relationships are actually getting stronger these days. How so? A 2020 University of Denver survey revealed that 68% of couples feel more gratitude for their partner now than before the crisis, and 60% feel that being self-quarantined together had a positive relationship impact. Even as couples tackled new challenges, 40% said they were having less conflict now than before the pandemic hit.
No matter how much progress you feel you’ve made in your relationship, that doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. If you want your relationship to continue thriving for years and years to come, here are some tried-and-true tips from the pros.
8 Tried and True Ways to Improve Your Relationship
1. Let go of grudges
Did you know that holding onto resentment can actually negatively impact your physical health, as well as your relationship? Studies have shown that the simple act of forgiveness can improve cholesterol levels and sleep while also lowering your blood pressure, anxiety, depression, stress, and risk of a heart attack. That’s why Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, psychotherapist and author of Training Your Love Intuition, recommends working on accepting your partner’s apologies when they’re sincere.
“No matter how much you love your partner, when they say or do something that causes you pain, you may not only feel hurt, but also unloved, unappreciated, and emotionally distanced from them,” she explains. “It’s not your fault that you feel this way. Our brain is wired to be on the lookout for experiences that can hurt us. Resist that temptation.”
It’s fine to take some time as part of forgiving your partner’s wrongdoing, but whatever you do, don’t pretend to bury it and then bring it up at a later date during a heated argument. Try to leave the past in the past, and think about what you need from your partner in order to move forward from something that was hurtful.
2. Ask rather than assume
Even if you think you know everything about your partner, according to Dr. Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist, it’s imperative to keep asking them questions about their hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, resentments, and desires — even after years together, their responses still might surprise you.
“Knowing these intimate parts of each other’s lives creates a bond that is unique to the two of you,” says Klapow. “It may feel awkward but doing a check-in specifically on these topics will make your relationship better in 2021.”
This is especially true if one or both partners tend to be non-confrontational or introverted. By formally designating a time to discuss these big topics, you’re making sure nothing gets swept under the rug.
3. Make a conscious effort to try new things
It’s only natural to develop certain routines and traditions when you’re in a long-term relationship, but if you’re always getting takeout from the same restaurant on Friday night, things might start to feel a little stale.
An eharmony survey revealed that 87% of couples feel happier when they have an equal focus on prioritizing quality time and their sex life, and novelty can be a game-changer in both areas.
“Doing new things creates a little anxiety — but you probably experience it as excitement,” explains Wish. “The underlying anxiety serves to increase your bonding as a team.”
Why not make a commitment to pick a different experience for date night once a week or month? Or make a “bucket list” of all the things you’ve both always wanted to try in the bedroom? A 2019 study found that when couples are in a new environment, their brains release more oxytocin — the so-called “love hormone” that’s associated with trust, empathy, and bonding.
4. Learn to pick your battles
Some of the healthiest and happiest couples know that it’s crucial not to sweat the small stuff. With that said, next time you feel an argument brewing, ask yourself: “Is this worth it?” Klapow says posing this simple question internally may help you to dodge fighting over some of the more trivial matters. That way, when there’s an issue that really does demand your attention, both of you have more patience and emotional bandwidth to deal with it.
“Always remind yourself that you are on the same team and regardless of who is ‘right,’” he adds. “And if you are working towards a solution, then the effort is worth it.”
5. Focus on balancing the chores
A very naughty Apartment Guide statistic revealed that people who are satisfied with the division of labor in the house have 33% more sex — clocking in an average of 7.5 intimate encounters per month, compared to 5.4 encounters for those dissatisfied with the split. Clearly, it’s time to start dividing up all the household responsibilities.
“Few of us like doing laundry, the dishes, making beds, or getting the car washed and cleaned,” says Wish. “Loving couples come up with satisfying ways to do those things. For example, you could tell each other which tasks you don’t mind or even like doing, and which ones you don’t like to do. You can also do a few ‘swap-outs’ once in a while where you each take on one or two of the other person’s tasks. And, of course, you can also do these tasks as a team.”
Regardless of which approach you take, he mere act of finding an agreeable solution that works for both of you creates stronger bonds.
6. Make those three little words count
While you may say those three little words frequently and absentmindedly as your loved one walks out the door in the morning, Klapow suggests being more intentional about how you say it.
“We may say it in passing, and we may do it almost as an obligation, or we may not do it at all,” he states. “But telling your partner you love them by looking them in the eye and saying it with meaning, is the most powerful set of words you can utter. So don’t discount the phrase. Professing your love is your pledge to your partner. It’s what sets the two of you apart from everyone else in the world.”
Pro tip: There’s a big difference between saying “love you,” and “I love you.” Try saying the latter, and make it a point to make eye contact with your significant other when you do so.
7. Acknowledge milestones and celebrations
While some people like to make a big deal out of birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and other holidays, others could care less. But when you’re in a long-term relationship, Wish says it’s important to give these occasions the attention they deserve.
“Minimizing these celebrations minimizes and weakens you as a couple — and when that happens, you can drift apart,” she explains.
Remember that spending a lot of money on an extravagant experience or gift doesn’t equate with love. Instead, show your partner that you cherish, care about, and appreciate the relationship by putting some thought into your plans. You can also keep their love language in mind when planning these celebrations: For example, if your partner values quality time, whipping up a romantic home-cooked meal might be a nice low-key way for them to celebrate Valentine’s Day with you. If words of affirmation are their thing, Wish advises expressing your feelings in writing.
“A hand-written card that expresses your feelings or that also includes loving words about what you’ve overcome as a team can bring far more lasting power to any celebration,” she adds.
8. Work on yourself
“The strength of your relationship is a direct function of the effort you put into yourself, as well as your relationship,” says Klapow. “Your relationship cannot thrive or survive if you don’t make you a better you.”
If your own stress or anxiety levels have been sabotaging your relationship, maybe it’s time to try meditation or seek therapy. If you’ve been feeling too dependent on your partner for your happiness, consider joining a social organization or taking a class that will enable you to meet new people. If it’s your self-image and self-confidence that have been suffering, it might be time to join a gym or pursue some new hobbies that play to your strengths.
Any and all of these steps will not only make you better as an individual, but also as a partner.
By Rebecca Strong of Askman