I was in the Detroit airport recently, waiting for a flight to Los Angeles. The terminal was crowded that day and my flight was delayed, so I sat down to relax and catch my breath. Reflexively, I began observing the couples around me.
Some of them were sitting patiently together, talking and laughing like old friends enjoying their time together. Others were staring off into space, seemingly unaware of each other or engrossed in their own reading material.
I continued to watch and thought to myself, “Do these couples ever hold hands?” “Did any of them say thank you to each other in the last week?” and “When was the last time one of them learned anything new or surprising about their partner?”
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: The Art of Apologizing)
If you asked people what causes relationships to end, most would probably say infidelity or fights about money. And that’s true. But findings from my landmark NIH-funded study of marriage — in which I followed 373 married couples for more than two decades — show that it's also the small stuff, such as forgetting to kiss your spouse before leaving for work or ignoring things that bother you about your partner, that are responsible for marriages going south.
Here’s some good news for lovebirds: If you're in a happy partnership — married or not — you can keep it that way or make it even better by introducing a few new behaviors into the relationship. While some experts say you need to focus on fixing what's wrong, my research shows that adding positive behaviors has a much greater impact on couples' happiness.
(MORE: How to Fall in Love With Your Spouse All Over Again)
How to Make Your Relationship Even Better
So what are some small, positive changes you can make to transform your relationship into one that is exciting and really happy? The rather extensive answer to that question is the basis of my upcoming hour-long PBS special called Secrets From The Love Doctor, which is airing nationally in December (check local listings).
In the program, I translate science and the findings of my study into accessible and simple strategies for improving and enhancing your relationship at every stage. Whether you’ve been together five, 10 or 50 years, you’ll learn surprising, practical and easy-to-implement ways to make your relationship really happy, just like the ones in my study.
How do I know that my science-based secrets and strategies actually work? Because in addition to sharing these tips with my clients, I use them myself in my own marriage!
(MORE: How to Stop the Constant Bickering)
To give you a taste of what the show encompasses, here are two of the positive changes I discuss. Both will make your relationship more passionate and joyful — and definitely more fun.
1. Do small things to make your partner happy — often. In my study, couples who gave each other what we call "affective affirmation" regularly were the most content. Affective affirmation consists of compliments, help and support, encouragement and subtle (nonsexual) rewards, such as hand-holding.
One unexpected finding was that men crave this more than women do, because women typically get it from people other than their husbands. When men don't get it, they become unhappy and look for that validation and attention elsewhere.
Try this: Tell your man he looks great in his outfit or send a middle-of-the-day sexy email. Guys, fill up her gas tank or bake her favorite dessert. You'll be delighted to see what happens with such small gestures that show you care.
2. Practice the "10-Minute Rule." Most couples think they talk to each other all the time. But how often do you chat about things that really deepen your understanding of your mate?
The happy couples in my study talked to each other frequently — not about their relationship, but about things like their dream vacation spot, their goals for the next five or 10 years and what causes them to feel anxious during the day. These people felt they knew a lot about their spouse in four key areas: friends, stressors, life dreams and values.
Try this: Set aside 10 minutes a day to talk to your partner about anything other than work, family, the household or the relationship. Ask what his or her favorite movie is, and why. Ask your spouse to share a happy childhood memory. Discuss what they'd like to be remembered for or to name the three most hated songs of all time. Do it at dinner, before bed or anytime — just as long as you do it for 10 minutes every day. This simple change infuses relationships with new life.
The big takeaway: Don’t let the small stuff slide in your relationship. Happy relationships don’t require hard work, just consistent attention. It doesn't take much to shake things up — in a good way. Introducing small behavioral changes and attitude shifts is the key to maintaining a happy love relationship.
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