For years, psychologists tried to understand why relationships fail. They targeted dysfunction, focusing on factors like negative emotions and bad communication. But it turns out that not failing is not the same as succeeding when it comes to relationships. Couples who experience a lot of negative interactions are more likely to divorce in the first few years of marriage, but couples who don't experience a lot of positive affect are likely to divorce farther down the road. So how can we make sure our relationships thrive?
Today, I'm going to pass along four scientifically-based tips on how to keep your relationship alive.
1. Laugh and play together. Play isn't just for kids. Playfully teasing your partner can bring you closer together (remember, the key is to tease "playfully"!). Couples who laugh more are more satisfied in their relationships. Humor and laughter also seem to have a buffering effect - using humor during conflict can help you resolve the issue. So pick a comedy the next time you're choosing a movie for date night, come up with playful nicknames, and the next time that your partner says something that bothers you, try responding with a joke instead of getting defensive.
2. Try new things together. The key to trying new activities with your partner is that the activities should be something novel and exciting. The novelty helps you and your partner create new memories and feel like a team as you try something new. The excitement of the activity may make you feel like your relationship is more exciting. Researchers have found that trying new things with your partner can help prevent boredom, make you feel closer to your partner, happier with your relationship, and more satisfied with life in general. It doesn't have to be as extreme as white water rafting—something as simple as trying a new type of food, or playing tourist in your own town should do the trick.
3. Cultivate gratitude.
I think we'd all agree that it is important to do nice things for your partner on occasion. But it is also important to notice and acknowledge when your partner does nice things for you. A little "thanks" can go a long way. When people feel grateful to their partners, both partners end up feeling more connected with each other and more satisfied with the relationship. It's also important to be grateful for who your partner is as a person. When you find yourself irritated instead of happy, try playing a few mind games to reset your mood - imagine what your life would be like if you'd never met your partner, or imagine how you'd feel if something bad happened to them. A bit morbid, but it works. These little exercises may* do more than just change your mood in the moment - couples who experience more gratitude are less likely to break up!
4. Celebrate triumphs. Supporting your partner through rough times is vital, but it is just as important to be supportive when things go right. Couples who celebrate achievements and triumphs are more satisfied with their relationships, experience fewer conflicts, have more fun together, and are happier in general. So the next time your partner gets a promotion, meets a new exercise goal, or just has a really great day, make sure to celebrate with them.
Laugh and play together: Campbell, L., Martin, R., & Ward, J. (2008). An observational study of humor use while resolving conflict in dating couples. Personal Relationships, 15, 41-55.
Try new things together: Aron, A., Norman, C., Aron, E., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
Cultivate gratitude: Algoe, S., Gable, S., & Masiel, N. (2010). It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.
Celebrate triumphs: Gable, S., Reis, H., Impett, E., & Asher, E. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.
*So far, this research has been primarily correlational, so we can't say for certain that gratitude causes people to stay together.