The Only Proven Way to Improve a Relationship
The vital step every couple needs to take to ward off relationship boredom.
Posted Jun 22, 2016
Healthy relationships benefit our psychological and physical well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), so why not make yours as strong and vibrant as possible?
Good relationships have a rhythm, a dyadic interplay that both members of a couple contribute to and enjoy. If you’re lucky enough to have a solid romantic relationship, you probably know a thing or two about communication, compromise, and support. And if you’re motivated to maintain that healthy relationship (or you want to move toward such a partnership), it can help to know real ways to create positive changes in relationship well-being.
But here’s the rub: In research, only experimental studies and replication can reveal factors that actually improve relationships. Other study designs (e.g., quasi-experimental; longitudinal) can add to the list of potential causal factors, but the conclusions drawn from these should be, at most, tentative. In fact, much of our current relationship research uses correlational designs, which simply look at how different factors co-vary at any one time point. Rarely do we have a window into behaviors, attitudes, or dynamics that we know cause changes in relationships.
This is why one experimental finding, which has stood the test of time, stands out as a clear way to make a real difference in relationships. In other words, researchers have identified a causal mechanism that actually improves relationship well-being.
If you want to improve your relationship, get your partner to join you in doing something new and interesting (Aron, Norman, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000). This might seem like common sense, but hindsight is 20/20: Researchers went into this study not knowing whether data would support this idea; after all, maybe it's enough for a couple to simply spend time together. Nope. Novelty is key.
And novelty is where many couples fall short. Think about it: How often do you and your partner actually share new, exciting experiences? Habits and routines often take over once a couple settles into a rhythm. We easily get stuck in a rut of the same old, same old. Research now suggests that mundane routines won't elevate your partnership.
To make your relationship better, you need to do something new, together.
Shared participation in exciting, novel activities was shown through three experimental (and two correlational) studies to improve relationship satisfaction, increase communication positivity, and raise overall relationship quality (Aron et al., 2000). A startling implication from this study is how much a relationship’s well-being is tied to its situation. How you navigate arousing or boring events in your relationship has an influence on the connection you feel with your partner, and your relationship's overall health.
So keep the chemistry alive by introducing new ways to engage with your partner. Explore your city together, try a new restaurant or a new board game, or visit a ballpark. You could go hiking, sign up for a cooking class, tour a museum or national landmark, visit a comedy club or bar you’ve never been to before, or tackle a new home improvement project. Challenge yourself and your partner to actively seek interesting opportunities that you can share together and you'll have a built-in mechanism that supports a thriving relationship.
Take note: For this to work, you both need to be interested in what you’re doing. If the idea of refurbishing furniture or playing Frisbee isn't interesting, try something else. But engaging in mundane activities, even if they’re new, won’t have the same effect (Aron et al., 2000).
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.