- Couples can make small changes in their day-to-day interactions to improve communication.
- Mirroring and reciprocating improve intimacy.
- Saying "thank you" and apologizing the right way increase relationship satisfaction.
- Affectionate physical touch is good for your health and for your relationship.
“Working on our communication” is one of the most commonly cited reasons why couples seek relationship counseling. This is not surprising. Often, over time, even the best of relationships can fall victim to negative communication patterns.
This is especially true for couples who find themselves under a lot of stress because, naturally, when our coping mechanisms are overtaxed, we default to older—more primitive and less mature—ways of coping (cf. Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019). A colleague used to say that when we are in distress, we turn into caricatures of ourselves—i.e., our worst qualities become exaggerated, and it gets harder to employ our most thought-out and balanced ways of interacting with the world.
However, there are several tweaks that do not require significant time or effort, just repetition and attention to our automatic behaviors that we can make in order to improve our connection with our partners. In a previous article, I discussed specific behaviors that undermine intimacy. Today, we will talk about the positive changes you can make in your day-to-day interactions that will help build more closeness and positive communication.
1. Mirror and reciprocate.
Think of mirroring and reciprocating as your two most valuable strategies to make your partner feel understood and valued.
Mirroring is a way of listening and clarifying what your partner is saying, without inserting your own thoughts or judgments. Frequently, in conversation, we listen to respond, rather than to hear what the other person is trying to convey to us. This can result in partners often having two parallel conversations and not truly hearing each other.
Instead, try to actively listen to your significant other and, first, in your own mind, answer the question, “What are they actually trying to tell me?” Then, reflect what you understood back to them.
Mirroring can sound something like this: “So, I think I heard you say that you are frustrated with your boss because of…” Notice how different this response is from: “Well, I don’t think your boss meant it that way,” or “I have never seen my boss do that.”
Reciprocating, on the other hand, involves noticing your partner’s bids for intimacy and responding to them with engagement and attention. For example, if your partner asks for a date night, they may be trying to connect with you without directly saying it.
Reciprocating may mean accepting the suggestion or, if you are unable to, offering a different time. Think of how you yourself would feel if your partner responds to a bid for connection with, “I have to work late this Friday, but how about Sunday evening?” rather than a disengaged, “Sorry, I can’t on Friday.”
2. Say thank you.
Frequently, as our relationships deepen and we become accustomed to the daily routines, we forget to do the little things that show our partner that we appreciate them. While it may sound redundant that we should thank our significant others for doing mundane chores like throwing out the garbage, unloading the dishwasher, or filling up our gas tank, do not underestimate the power of positive reinforcement.
Even if those are chores that “belong” to the other person in a relationship, saying “Thank you” demonstrates to them that you are not taking them for granted. Think of “Thank you” as a very low-risk and low-effort but high-return investment.
3. Apologize the right way.
Here’s the thing about apologies: Most of us were never taught how to apologize properly. We produce vague, half-hearted, or “sorry, but...” kinds of apologies that often not only miss the mark but have the potential to cause more harm.
Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, discovered that a good apology—one that can transform our relationship for the better—has no ifs and buts in it, and involves taking full responsibility of our actions without caveats. Her advice for apologizing in a constructive way includes the following steps:
- Don’t be defensive. Don’t listen to the person for the purpose of responding or explaining yourself; listen to understand them.
- Be authentic in your apology by showing genuine remorse.
- Drop the caveats. Of course you can explain away why you acted in a certain way! However, in an effective apology, your reasoning is irrelevant. Stick to expressing sincere regret, and avoid excuses or rationalizations.
- Right-size your apology. Many of us will overdo apologies by going overboard and overcompensating. An apology should be about the person you are apologizing to and their feelings. It should not put them in a position where they are now taking care of your emotional life and guilt.
- Actions matter more than intentions. This one goes against the old saying that “It’s the thought that counts,” but is really important regardless of whether we are talking about apologies or other aspects of the relationship. Ultimately, it is the effects of your actions and words that matter, not your intentions. When apologizing, pay attention to what you are apologizing for, and make sure to address its impact on the individual rather than talking about how you did or didn’t mean it. What is healing about an apology is our ability to understand the other person’s emotions and make them feel seen and heard.
4. Pay attention to physical touch.
Back in the '50s and '60s, American psychologist Harry Harlow was inspired by John Bowlby’s studies on the importance of infants’ bond with their caregivers. He designed a series of famous studies with rhesus macaques, which demonstrated that rhesus infants prefer warmth and the comfort of physical touch to food.
Since the monumental work of these two legendary figures in psychology (Bowlby’s work on attachment and Harlow’s work on nurturing), many studies have confirmed the importance of physical touch in our development. However, such benefits have been found to be just as prominent for adults.
Recent research demonstrates that receiving affectionate touch promotes both psychological and physical well-being. Dr. Tiffany Field, who has studied touch extensively and was the head of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, has demonstrated that any type of touch—hugs, cuddling, hand-holding—can affect our ability to relax through impacting brainwaves, as well as decrease the human stress response through reducing cortisol levels.
Besides the fact that touch has been shown to boost our immune system (it literally helps us produce the so-called killer cells that fight viruses, bacteria, and cancers), moderate-pressure touching, like rubbing your partner’s back or holding their hand, in fact, helps the body produce more serotonin, which is a natural anti-depressant.
What is more, affectionate touch appears to have all of the following positive benefits:
- Increased intimacy in day-to-day life (Durbin et al., 2021)
- Better communication during moments of conflict (Conradi et al., 2020)
- Feeling safe, nurtured, and trusting of one’s partner (Jakubiak & Feeney, 2016)
5. Play together.
Do you remember a time when you and your partner felt joyful together, lost in a moment? Maybe you were sightseeing, or you went to a comedy show, or perhaps you played fetch with your dog on the beach. This is playing. To adults, it is equivalent to when children engage in imaginative games, fantasy, or fun activities together.
Donald Winnicott, a 20th-century pediatrician and psychoanalyst, is credited with making significant contributions to our understanding of the importance of playing, which he viewed as a transitional space—between subjective and objective reality, but also between our individual subjectivities. In adults as well as in children, the ability to spontaneously engage in play with others is a sign of psychological well-being.
When playing with your partner, you both enter a shared relational space which enhances your bond and allows you to be your authentic selves together. It is as if you are together in a reality of your own, a world that belongs only to the two of you.
What is more, play in its nature is autotelic—existing for its own sake, rather than carried out because of external pressures not inherent in the activity itself. In play, the joy of being together is the goal in and of itself. In turn, playing together creates a sense of knowing the other person, feeling safe with them, and improving your intimate connection.
Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.
Conradi, H. J., Noordhof, A., & Arntz, A. (2020). Improvement of conflict handling: Hand-holding during and after conflict discussions affects heart rate, mood, and observed communication behavior in romantic partners. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 46(5), 419–434. https://doi. org/10.1080/0092623X.2020.1748778
Durbin, K. B., Debrot, A., Karremans, J., & Van der Wal, R. (2021). Can we use smart-phones to increase physical affection, intimacy and security in couples? Preliminary support from an attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(3), 1035–1045. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520970278
Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2016). A sense of security: Touch promotes state attachment security. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(7), 745–753. https://doi.org/10. 1177/1948550616646427