Researchers publish literally thousands of articles about relationships and what makes them work—or fail. (Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues produce some of the best.)
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:
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.
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.
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.”