- Maintaining romantic relationships can be particularly challenging.
- A new study from Greece examined 14 categories of strategies couples use to strengthen and enhance their romantic relationships.
- The most effective strategies were discussing problems with one’s partner, understanding their partner's needs, and showing affection and love.
Published in Evolutionary Psychology, a recent investigation by Apostolou and collaborators examined how people try to improve their intimate relationships and how effective these techniques are perceived.
Investigating Strategies for Improving Romantic Relationships
Sample: 219 Greek-speaking individuals (121 women); the average age of 32 years for women and 37 years for men; 38 percent were in a current relationship.
Methods: Researchers asked the participants, “Write down some things you have done in the past, or you are likely to do in the future in order to improve your relationship with your partner.”
Results: Researchers produced a list of 81 acts (e.g., “I would make more compromises”). They used the list in the subsequent investigation.
Sample: 511 Greek-speaking individuals (309 women); mean age of men, 36 years; mean age of women, 34 years; 36 percent were in a relationship.
Methods: Researchers asked participants: “Suppose you are in a romantic relationship. Indicate to what extent you would perform each of the following acts in order to improve your relationship with your partner.” They were then given the list of 81 acts.
Results: Fourteen categories of relationship-improvement strategies were identified. These, along with examples, are listed below. Note: The ranking is based on how frequently these techniques were used and is arranged from least to most:
- Improve looks (buy a new wardrobe, lose weight)
- Self-improvement (take classes, seek therapy to learn how to be a better spouse)
- Make concessions and compromises (develop greater tolerance and patience)
- Be less withdrawn and grumpy (be friendly even if having a bad day)
- Look after myself (set compassionate boundaries, engage in self-care)
- Exercise self-control (react calmly and peacefully, change bad habits)
- Open to her/his criticism (greater receptivity to negative feedback, problem-solving)
- Give my partner more space (give him/her freedom and time to spend with friends)
- Show my love (say I love you frequently)
- Build trust (be honest and truthful)
- Create experiences together (date nights, trips)
- Show greater interest in my partner (spend more time with each other)
- Discuss our problems together (be willing to discuss worries and concerns)
- Try to understand her/his needs (pay attention to the partner’s feelings, needs, thoughts, and wishes)
As can be seen, most of these techniques are partner-focused. Only a few are self-focused—specifically, the strategies of self-improvement, enhancing appearance, and looking after oneself.
Sample: 367 Greek-speaking individuals (206 women); the average age of 29 years in both men and women; roughly 49 percent in a relationship.
Methods: Researchers told participants to imagine they are in a romantic relationship and then to rate the effectiveness of the 81 acts in improving the relationship.
Analysis of the ratings resulted in this list of strategies ranked from least to most effective.
- Improve looks
- Be less withdrawn and grumpy
- Look after myself
- Make concessions and compromises
- Exercise self-control
- Give my partner more space
- Create experiences together
- Build trust
- Open to her/his criticism
- Show more interest in my partner
- Show her/him my love
- Try to understand her/his needs
- Discuss our problems together
If you look carefully, this ranking of the effectiveness of the relationship-improvement strategies matches the ranking of willingness to use particular techniques (Study 2).
The research reviewed found 14 strategies people use to strengthen their romantic relationships.
Self-focused approaches, such as enhancing one's appearance, were the least likely to be used and considered least effective.
Most likely to be used and considered most effective were other-focused approaches:
- Showing interest in one’s partner
- Understanding the needs of the partner
- Taking the time to discuss problems
What these helpful behaviors have in common is that they are indicative of commitment. This agrees with previous research that suggests a major source of relationship strain is lack of commitment.
Another potential source of relationship difficulties is undesirable traits or a lack of desirable ones. Interestingly, many of the frequently employed techniques—making compromises, having self-discipline, understanding the needs of the spouse—may be seen as ways of demonstrating or emphasizing one’s positive traits, such as kindness, flexibility, self-control, and the ability to empathize.
The research discussed found that willingness to talk about problems with the significant other, showing interest in him or her, and creating shared experiences may be effective techniques to reduce relationship strain and strengthen commitment.
In contrast, improving one’s appearance, for instance, did not appear as helpful.
So, here are five suggestions on how to improve your relationship, whether you are dating or married:
- Show interest. Do this by prioritizing your romantic relationship. For instance, be curious about your partner and their thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs.
- Be willing to discuss your experiences, including day-to-day challenges and difficulties.
- Be open to hearing about your significant other’s personal or relationship problems. Work on becoming a better listener.
- Express love and affection. This may involve becoming more accepting of your spouse’s shortcomings, saying “I love you” frequently, improving your sex life, etc.
- Create shared experiences. For example, take a class together, go out on romantic dates, or take a trip to a new destination.
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