By Dr. Jim Walkup, LMFT
If you truly want the best relationship possible, don't leave the fate of your "happily in love" connection to luck or chance. Trust me, couples who thrive for the long-term actively choose behaviors that keep them in a good place with each other.
As a marriage therapist who has been happily married and counseling for 40 years, here are the top seven habits I see ridiculously happy couples practice faithfully:
1. Spend time together.
It is staggering how many couples come to my office having not spent a single meaningful moment together since their last session. I know, I know -- kids and jobs quickly derail your chances of alone time. But come on!
You can't connect if you never spend time together. It's the most obvious and basic step of keeping love alive.
So get with it, pull out your calendars, set a date to spend some time together and then honor it. Create a space (sans kids) where you can breathe together -- that is when meaningful connection and conversations occur.
2. Know your partner's love language.
This one is so important. Just because your mom sang your praises for cleaning up your room doesn't mean your partner is as impressed by the act. We each value different loving behaviors and gestures in our relationship. Often couples have completely different love languages.
If you don't know what you're partner's is, ask. Your honey has probably tried to share theirs, but you may have missed it. So, find out today.
Just ask, "What things have I done that make you feel the most loved?" Perhaps it will be the time you surprised her by cooking dinner. Perhaps his will be just touching him affectionately. Or that time you threw him that surprise birthday party.
Unsure of what the different love languages are? Make a date to flip through The Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman together. Discovering your partner's love language makes showing appreciation and affection truly fun again.
3. Commit to 20-second hugs twice a day.
I'm not talking about a polite, A-shaped hug. I mean a hip-to-hip, really holding each other bear hug. Why must it last 20 seconds? Because that's how long it takes for your oxytocin to kick in (otherwise known as "the cuddle hormone") which gives you that delightful feeling that all is right with the world (and your relationship).
I regularly "prescribe" 20-second hugs to my patients because the gesture is powerful medicine. So, every morning before you leave for work and then again when you get home, spend 20 full seconds in an embrace. I guarantee you, one or both of you will quickly slip into your happy place. But remember, because it works so well and feels so good, if you skip this ritual too often, your partner will soon feel uncared for. So commit to it and enjoy it!
4. Learn to listen (without interrupting).
Nothing says "I love you" more than really listening when your partner speaks. About their thoughts. About their feelings. Even about that big meeting with their boss and their stressful, busy day.
Authentic listening is a skill most people struggle with, however. It means shutting off your screens, dialing down your own thoughts, making eye contact, nodding your head in an appreciative way... you know, actually caring and being present. Supportive grunts and high-fives are also appropriate. Bonus points for touching your partner's arm at appropriate moments to show you're genuinely paying attention.
Giving your partner the floor without needing to put in your own two cents (or stealing the spotlight) shows that their thoughts and feelings are as important to you as your own. Just make sure to mirror back what your partner says (without editorial comments, of course). Don't tell them what to do, simply reflect what you heard them say and your understanding of how it impacted them.
5. Keep each other in the loop.
How can you know when to celebrate or commiserate with your partner if they don't keep you informed about what's going on in their life? If your partner believes their entire work future depends on keeping a current client happy, you can suggest dinner out to toast occasions when those happy client moments occur.
Or when your partner shares that they're working through tension in a valued friendship, you can smile and show support when they report that speed bump was successfully smoothed over.
We all want and need to come home to someone who carries us in their mind as we face the challenges and joys of our day. Knowing that your partner cares about your life outside of just your relationship together makes feel protected, cheered for, and like our place on Earth matters.
6. Actually plan your future together (as in, on an actual calendar!)
Most of the stuff that matters in relationships won't happen unless it's on the calendar. This includes sex, getting together with friends, and making time to see each other (see habit #1!). Making time every month to set goals together will increase your sense that you're on the same journey together, planning a meaningful future that you both prioritize and value.
Remember, you're on a team, so pull together, whether it's around the children, your individual career goals, your sex life, or just figuring out what you want to do this weekend.
7. Reassure each other.
Everyone needs reassurance from time to time. Don't wait until one of you needs it to give it. Frequently affirming how much you care keeps the other person relaxed and feeling safe in your relationship. Sometimes an out-of-nowhere, heartfelt "I love you" instantly makes up for all of those moments when you didn't understand each other.
And nothing keeps us feeling secure in our relationships like hearing all of the ways our partner appreciates us. It's hard to slip into insecurity about their love when they've just mentioned two reasons why they're so glad you're in their life.
Human beings survive across the ages because our brains evolved with a negativity bias -- remaining ever alert to what's possibly wrong. Our brains feed us flashes of every potential danger which often means we're imagining some of them. When you see your partner panic and "make up" a problem, rather than get mad or defensive, reach out to them calmly. They just need some reassurance to quiet that primal part of their brain down again.
Focus on what you want to see more of.
The common thread of the seven habits above is that they each teach couples to focus on what is going right in their relationship versus what is going wrong. So celebrate what you want to see more of. Compliment instead of criticize. Deep down we all yearn for the feeling found in the beautiful words of Mr. Rogers, "I love you ... just the way you are."
Challenge yourself to let go of criticism, and invite your partner to rest in the happiness of being loved for exactly that.
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