Elaborate romantic gestures and effusive Instagram posts aren’t necessary ingredients for a strong, happy relationship.
Rather, it’s the small, simple habits ― like getting enough sleep and kissing hello and goodbye, for example ― that have a major, positive effect over time.
Below, marriage therapists reveal what you can do to make a big difference in your relationship.
1. Get a good night’s sleep.
We’re not at our best when we’re exhausted. Lack of sleep can leave us cranky, short-tempered and unable to focus. Conversely, getting sufficient rest ― when possible ― can improve our mood and overall well-being and, in turn, make us better, more loving partners.
“No matter what is going on in a relationship, sleep should be the number one priority, even over sex,” psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez said. “Sleep is essential for good health. Being well rested and healthy is important for self and the partnership.”
What’s more, going to bed at the same time as your partner promotes intimacy and closeness. Those few minutes of togetherness before your heads hit the pillow offer a small window for bonding after a busy day apart. Plus, hitting the sheets at the same time opens up the opportunity for cuddling and/or sex.
2. Do thoughtful little things for each other, just because.
Small, simple acts of kindness or thoughtfulness show your partner you care. No grand gestures necessary! It could be making your wife’s coffee in the morning, leaving a love note on the nightstand or surprising your husband with his favorite snacks.
“When both partners make the effort to do little intentional acts of kindness, particularly without prompting by Hallmark or a holiday telling you to do so, the caring multiplies throughout the relationship,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling men.
3. Compliment and thank one another.
When we’re stuck in our routines, it’s easy to start taking the little things our partners do for us (or the kids, or around the house) for granted. Sometimes we forget to say thank you.
When we do remember, we offer a quick, “Thanks, babe” and move on with our day. But acknowledging what you’re grateful for specifically can be more effective.
“Highlight what you are showing appreciation for,” advised marriage and family therapist Spencer Northey. “As in, ‘Thank you for tidying the living room,’ or ‘I really appreciate you picking me up.’ Praise helps your partner feel loved and appreciated, and labeling the praise lets your partner know that you notice the little things they are doing. This also helps a person know exactly what you like, so they can do more of it!”
The same applies to the positive things we often think about our spouses but don’t always say out loud.
“The next time you notice, ‘I really liked the way you gave me that advice, it was helpful and you’re so smart,’ say it aloud,” said couples therapist Kari Carroll.
4. Squeeze in hugs, kisses and other displays of affection.
Physical touch is an important part of a romantic relationship. That doesn’t mean you need to get hot and heavy every time you see each other; little touches here and there will help keep the physical spark alive.
“If you put your hand on their arm when you greet or sit down with your partner, this will increase oxytocin and you will both experience a decrease in stress,” Carroll said. “It says, ‘I care about you’ and it shows vulnerability and openness.”
If you’re not already in the habit of hugging and kissing hello and goodbye, consider incorporating that into your daily routine. Most will probably be a quick squeeze or peck on the cheek. But renowned relationships researcher John Gottman recommends that couples share a kiss that lasts for six seconds or more at least once a day.
“He calls this creating a ‘kiss with possibilities,’” Northey said. “And, yes, to begin this habit you may have to start counting in your head 1-2-3-4-5-6 until you get into the rhythm. Making your kisses last reminds you that your partner is so much more than your roommate.”
5. Apologize when you’ve screwed up.
Sometimes it stings to admit we’re wrong. But a genuine apology goes a long way toward mending your partner’s hurt feelings. (And FYI: “Sorry if you feel that way, but...” does not cut it.)
“Sorry has become a forgotten word today,” Smith said. “Acknowledging mistakes or regretful words is a huge component in keeping your relationship on track and moving forward.”
6. Ask for what you want instead of blaming your partner for not giving it to you.
Psychotherapist Elisabeth J. LaMotte says her couples therapy clients have told her that one of the most useful tools they’ve learned in counseling is to ditch “you” statements and change them into “I” statements.
So what does that mean? Rather than telling your partner, “You obviously care more about your work than you do about me,” it might be more effective to say, “When you check your work email during date night, I feel lonely and disappointed.”
“This shift completely changes the narrative,” said LaMotte, founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center. “It pitches to the best in the other person and it organically communicates that you are willing to make yourself vulnerable and take ownership of your part in the relationship. It takes some practice to get into the habit, but it is worth it.”
7. Schedule time to have real conversations.
When life gets busy, it’s easy to get caught up in to-do lists, only giving attention to the most pressing matters of the day. But setting aside time for you and your partner to have intimate conversations ― not just about the grocery list and the kids’ math homework ― is essential.
“I can’t tell you how many couples I counsel who say they never have time to talk,” Smith said. “Obviously, they’re talking about who’s taking the kids to the dentist or soccer practice, but not about each other or their relationship. Most of us are so busy we have to put it on the calendar, and that’s OK, because what’s most important is that it happens.”
Also, regularly discussing finances ― that is, before some type of budget-related disaster occurs ― could prevent arguments or more unpleasant conversations down the line.
“Many partners don’t say anything about money until there’s a problem ― big credit card bill, spending they don’t approve of, bank account balance is low,” Smith said. “Money doesn’t have to always be a negative subject or a cause of conflict, but it will be when it’s avoided and only brought up in such circumstances.”