When you think of health and wellness, what comes to mind? Watching what you eat or exercising three to five times a week? Focusing on self-care or practicing mindfulness and meditation? Those are just a few of the recommendations that have been touted as ways to protect our physical, mental, and emotional health.
But how do we tend to our relational health and what is it that makes a relationship healthy? Is it the absence of emotional and physical abuse or merely having a partner who is faithful? In truth, a strong relationship is shaped and sustained through the time and attention given to it each and every day. While date nights are definitely important, it really is the little things that make or break your relationship.
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman identifies the habits that seem to be present in all happy, long-lasting relationships and outlines how they can be accomplished in as little as five hours a week. If we can find 30 minutes in our day for regular exercise, surely we can do the same for our partner. Here are a few things from Gottman’s Magic 5 Hours that will help take your relationship to the next level:
Focus on the positive
Nothing will kill a relationship faster than constant criticism. It is all too easy to find fault with each other when we lack a solid foundation of respect and appreciation. Give compliments, express gratitude, and constantly remind your partner (and yourself) of all the reasons you fell in love with them in the first place. If you make this your focus, you might just find there’s less to criticize.
Be a supportive listener
All of us want a partner who will always have our back. When you’re venting about how ridiculous your boss is, or panicked about making a deadline, the last thing you want to hear is what you could have done differently. Instead of advice, try to ease stress by letting your partner know you can see their side and understand how they feel.
Make time for each other
Go out on dates, plan surprises, learn something new together. Perhaps circumstances in your life are limiting your options—can’t get a babysitter, money is tight, or everything’s closed because of COVID-19. Don’t let that stop you from finding time to focus on your relationship. What matters most is nurturing that connection with each other.
Sit out on the deck or curl up together on the couch and set the phones and tablets aside. There’s always more to know about your partner, even if you’ve been married for 25 years. (Pro tip—the free Gottman Card Decks app is a great resource for generating meaningful conversations. There are also prompts to help you express appreciation and become a better listener, too!)
Physical intimacy is what sets your romantic relationship apart from all others, so of course it deserves attention. Not sure where to begin? Try something Gottman refers to as the “six-second kiss.” Kissing releases oxytocin to help us feel more connected to each other. It can even lower levels of the hormone cortisol, which can help reduce stress. Drawing that kiss out for six seconds not only maximizes those effects, but also gives you a brief pause from the chaos of life to be with your partner without distractions. Start out with once a day and see what happens.
Like all things that are worth it in life, a great relationship requires you to never stop learning and working at it. Hopefully these tips will help you to do just that. If you feel like you could use more help, find a therapist experienced in couples counseling. And do it sooner rather than later—it’s a lot easier to tackle the hard stuff when you still like each other!
Lisa Foster, LPCC, ATR, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and a Registered Art Therapist at The Willow Center.