6 Simple Steps to a Happy, Thriving Relationship
Don't just survive—thrive in your relationship.
Romantic relationships require nurturing, but how do you best nurture an existing relationship?
Part of the problem is that, over time, every relationship develops patterns. Patterns in behaviors, patterns in emotions, patterns in what we expect from our partners (and ourselves). These patterns define our everyday interactions. They might be healthy enough to keep a relationship going, but if you're looking for a relationship to thrive (not just survive) then pointed efforts to enhance your relationship patterns could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
How to help your relationship thrive, not just survive
Relationship scientists strive to identify the patterns that predict healthy relationship functioning. Evidence suggests its worth your time to consider adopting or doubling-down your effort to do the following:
1. Practice responsiveness. Responsiveness helps alleviate the potential adverse effects of stress in relationships. We know relationships can suffer in the face of one or both partners' work stress, family stress, or any other kind of potentially toxic threat from external to the relationship. When people practice responsiveness, they are giving full attention to their partner, really listening and expressing care and concern. This gesture goes a long way in protecting a relationship, including from the stressors tied to the pandemic (Balzarini et al., 2020).
2. Make your phone an asset, not a liability. If you've heard of technoference (technology + interference), you're probably familiar with the idea that phones can be problematic in relationships. You've got texts to read, social media sites to check, online shopping to do... but when people are distracted by their phones to the point where they are ignoring their partners, relationship well-being can suffer. This partner "phubbing" (phone + snubbing") is now well-documented (Roberts & David, 2016).
But did you know phones can be used to improve relationships? Sending positive text messages can boost relationship satisfaction (Luo & Tuney, 2015), a simple step that can support the health and wellness of your relationship.
3. Foster psychological flexibility. It's easy to rigidly want what you want and make demands, but research suggests that couples — and families — do better when people practice psychological flexibility. Being open, aware, considering the context, and keeping perspective all go a long way in reducing negativity (and not escalating problems). Fortunately, psychological flexibility can be developed with practice.
4. Get to know each other in a new way. When was the last time you and your partner talked one-on-one about your fears, joys, memories, or hopes? When chatting about casual topics or day-to-day plans becomes routine, consider introducing an intimacy builder through conversation.
A classic study showed that couples who engage in self-disclosing conversation experience an increase in feelings of closeness relative to those who engage in small-talk (Aron, Aron, Vallone, & Bator, 1997). Perhaps fall in love all over again by asking each other intimate questions, engaging in authentic self-disclosure, and responsively attending to each others' responses.
5. Reminisce about the funny times. Not every day is an exciting day in the life of a relationship, but we do have memories that we can call upon, no matter what the circumstances. Research suggests that couples who spend time reminiscing about laughing together reported higher relationship satisfaction than those couples who reminisced about other memories (Bazzini, Stack, Martincin, & Davis, 2007). So dig through the memory archive, and when your relationship needs a boost, share a conversation about times that had you laughing.
6. Feel and express gratitude. Relationships are built on small behaviors, and gratitude is a wonderful example of a small but powerful behavior that can make a positive difference in relationships. To feel gratitude requires noticing what your partner does for you, your family, or your relationship; it's an other-oriented emotion.
When people express gratitude to their partners, it produces a cascade of positive outcomes (Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010). Their partners feel more connected and more satisfied in the relationship, and gratitude increases their work to improve the relationship (Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, & Keltner, 2012).
Relationships are not static. Paying attention to patterns in your relationship can give you insight into your dynamic, and if it's a good relationship but could be better, then small steps like the ones listed above may help. Infusing behaviors that foster closeness and responsiveness can support strong relationship functioning.
Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.