The findings help us know what makes a connection move from good to great. What follows are four research-based tips that, in my work as a couples therapist, seem to really help couples find happiness and satisfaction:
- Express Admiration and Affection.
Many of us know to make up after a fight. But research tells us that we build a bank account of positive feelings if we do these “make up” actions before we have a conflict. We build this account balance when we express our love without anything spurring the expression. Such expressions can consist of an unexpected text, a small favor, or a note left near the sink. As the account builds, we tend to override our tendency to see our partner negatively when stress causes irritability, allowing us to use our reservoir of positive feelings to be forgiving. The idea is to look for ways to appreciate and feel fondness for your partner, and express those things—when times are good.
- Make Room in Your Head for the Other Person.
Our lives are busier than ever. We face demands on the space in our heads every second from emails, texts and other alerts. Our children make demands on us, too, as they should, asking for the attention they deserve. But as we fill our minds with so many bits of information, we're actually happiest when we reserve space in our heads for our partner. Satisfied couples tell us that they fill this space with important information about their significant other, including everyday things like important dates and favorite foods, but also deeper things that mean something to our partners. For example, if there's a song that reminds your partner of a special time in their childhood, keeping that knowledge in your head adds to your private map of him or her. Asking questions about how your partner thinks about things or feels about different parts of life tells them that you care and want to know about them. Couples who love well keep these “love maps” of each other in the forefront of their minds.
- Accept Influence from Each Other.
Many people define power in relationships as the control we have over each other, but another way to define power is the balance of influence each person has on the other. We all ask our partners to allow us to influence them. We ask for help with the laundry, caring about our feelings, or a moment of undivided attention. Happy relationships consist of not just these efforts to influence or to connect, but accepting those efforts. In other words, if we mostly say “OK” to a request for help (and, of course, then do it) or turn toward our partner when they need us, the interaction affects how we both feel positively. When we fight, there is a special case of the acceptance action—saying “yes” to an effort to repair the breakdown in the relationship. The best of the repair efforts start off with a soft emotional message that includes a word about how the “repairer” might have contributed to the argument. To say “yes,” we turn our feelings and attention to our partner and take ownership over our role in the argument. Repairing an argument is not so much about solving the problem at hand (some problems in relationship just defy being solved)—it’s about managing a fight to fix the distance arguments could cause. If we can avoid that distance, we can stay connected rather than isolated from one another.
- Know Your Partner’s Inner World.
We live in our heads more than most of us realize. We learn to attach meaning to events or family rituals, to words and gestures. Those meanings create a symbolic world in our thinking—a world often unknown to our partner. Conflicts often stem more from reactions we both have to these meanings than the real situation outside our heads. Thriving relationships consists of each partner’s efforts to learn the other person’s meanings and symbols. Some of the most important parts of that inner world are the dreams we have for our life and relationships. Many of us find it hard to express our dreams, so partners often show love by looking for disappointed hope underneath the argument. As we learn more about each other’s inner world, each of us begins to share the meanings and dreams. We grow to see the relationship serving each other’s dreams and hopes, and spend energy helping our partner fulfill their aspirations for life. A key to happiness in relationships is knowing each other’s meanings and symbols, finding the dreams within conflicts, and creating shared meanings.
Many pop-psychology authors continue to say that relationships require hard work. I would agree, but only in part. Learning habits like creating love maps or shared meanings can require effort, unless it comes naturally (as it does for some people). But the key to sustaining a happy relationship isn’t doing this hard work all your life, it's learning the habits that will make each other feel happy and safe. When the habits take over (as habits do), the effort stops seeming like work. In fact, we often build such routines into our lives together without thinking about them much at all. At that point, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Happy is as happy does.”