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7 Psychological Strategies to Strengthen Relationships

Bolster your connection with these research-based strategies.

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

There are a number of well-researched psychological strategies that can help strengthen your love relationships. Here are seven strategies, the psychology behind them, and how to use them.

1. The Expectancy Effect — This is one of the most well-researched psychological phenomena. Psychologist Robert Rosenthal demonstrated that by holding positive expectations about another’s behavior, we can subtly influence their behavior in a good way (the “I-know-you-can-do-it” effect). Holding positive expectations about your loved one (“You are a good person”; “I think you are fabulous”; “You will succeed”) can not only make them feel better, but make them perform better as well.

2. Positive Social Support — Considerable research shows that giving positive support to a stressed loved one can help them cope. The key, however, is to avoid negativity in the supportive relationship. Examples of negative social support are comments like, “I told you so,” or lashing out in a scolding or punitive manner. Be positively supportive by listening rather than telling. If your partner primarily needs to be heard and understood, be empathic and supportive (see empathic listening below). If problem-solving is in order, try to help solve the problem. Be what your loved one needs at the given time. If in doubt, ask.

3. The Norm of Reciprocity — This is the “one good turn deserves another” phenomenon that has important implications for all of the other strategies. In essence, the norm of reciprocity states that if someone does us a favor, we feel indebted, and there is a psychological motivation to return the favor. So, if our partner compliments us, we feel the urge to return the compliment. The key is to keep the norm in positive territory — focusing on our loved one’s positive attributes and behaviors. Compliment, perform some favor, help out with some chore — and you will usually receive something positive in return.

4. Cognitive Reframing — When your loved one is troubled and dwelling on only the negatives — an illness, a misfortune, some stressor at work — try to provide an alternative way of viewing the situation in a more positive light. This is the old, proven technique of having the individual focus on positives instead of negatives (“Count your blessings”). Here is a helpful website to help you understand cognitive reframing.

5. Empathic Listening — The goal of empathic listening is to allow your partner to disclose feelings, thoughts, concerns, stresses, or problems, and to do so by fully listening and empathizing with them. One difficulty is our tendency to want to say something — to offer advice or make suggestions — but it is important to focus simply on gaining an understanding of our partner’s emotions and concerns, and to demonstrate that we understand their feelings. Empathic listening can make our partner feel better, relieve stress, and provide a sense of security. The norm of reciprocity suggests that if we are an empathic listener, our partner will also become more empathic — but it doesn’t hurt to remind them. Like many of these strategies, empathic listening is something that needs to be developed. Here is a detailed guide to empathic listening.

6. Unconditional Positive Regard — Developed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, this is being accepting and supportive of a loved one, regardless of what the person has done, experienced, or said. Like empathic listening, showing unconditional positive regard takes patience and practice. You need to suspend your own feelings and opinions and just value the other individual. Over time, demonstrating unconditional positive regard should be returned by your partner.

7. Model Forgiveness When your partner transgresses, it is important to maintain the relationship that you forgive. We all make mistakes, and by showing forgiveness, we can model how to begin to repair fractured relationships.

Of course, relationships are a two-way street. Both partners need to engage in these positive psychological behaviors for a relationship to succeed.