- Strong, long-term relationships are not immune to struggles.
- Learning how to diffuse and resolve conflict is central to a connected, loving relationship.
We met at an anti-Valentine’s day party at Nice Guy Eddie’s on Avenue A in the East Village. Both 25, young, dumb and broke graduate students, we didn’t know much about love. Twenty-three years, six moves, and four kids later, now we do. Although smile lines are deeper and bellies are softer, our love continues to grow stronger and yes, even more exciting with each new year together.
Here are seven secrets that I have learned to keep love going for the long haul.
- Remember what’s going right. When things go wrong, it’s easy to forget that good in the relationship still exists. Although conflict needs to be addressed, it also needs to be viewed in the context of the whole relationship. Asking “what does my partner do right?” or “what is good about our relationship?” can help to ease some tension and face difficult situations with a more positive mindset. Additionally, thinking back on the last moment you enjoyed together can also bring the perspective needed to resolve and ultimately forgive.
- Hug often. Non-sexual touch is an important part of relationship intimacy and has been shown to release oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for feelings of love and bonding and higher levels of empathy. A 20-second hug outside of the bedroom may feel awkwardly long, but is enough to get the oxytocin flowing, reducing stress and tension while increasing relaxation and connection.
- Apologize quickly. Few things have more power to defuse tension than a genuine “I’m sorry.” Conflict often leads couples to quickly build walls of emotional safety even within long-term relationships. A heartfelt apology can deconstruct those walls, as it conveys that you have seen and understood your partner’s pain. I don’t advise taking the blame for things you are not responsible for, but we can always apologize for even unintentionally causing hurt or frustration by saying “I’m sorry I made you feel this way.”
- Go to bed. I’m not talking about sex, although it's incredibly beneficial to longevity in relationships; I’m talking about sleep. Often I see couples who insist on “not going to bed angry.” However, late-night resolution is hard to come by when couples experience intense emotions in addition to exhaustion. We don’t have the clarity and energy required to resolve conflicts at that time in the evening. I have seen better outcomes when couples agree to revisit the situation the following day. We can pause conflict with a statement like “I don’t want to hurt you and say the wrong thing because I am tired. Can we talk about this in the morning before it gets worse?” Although it may not be the best sleep you’ve ever gotten, it’s certainly better than intensifying a fight and getting no sleep at all.
- Dream together. Early on in a relationship when the chemistry is high, couples experience higher levels of dopamine, the neurochemical responsible for pleasure and satisfaction. Yet dopamine is mainly triggered by new or novel pleasure, so as the relationship continues it appears to wane. However, research has shown that it resurfaces in couples who have been together for over 20 years in response to the strength of the attachment. We also have the ability to stimulate dopamine in a relationship by creating new experiences to look forward to together. Dreaming together about the future or sharing a common vision or goal is one way to do this. Putting date nights, weekend trips, or other enjoyable experiences on a calendar can also increase dopamine as a couple anticipates these pleasurable activities together.
- Surround yourself with couples you admire. Research clearly illustrates that you reflect the company you keep. A strong network of friends with shared relationship values provides the support couples need when they hit a hard patch, as most relationships will at some point. Connection to other strong relationships also serves to inspire and motivate couples to persevere and improve their connection, and, research demonstrates, even resist temptations.
- Stay curious. Even in long-term relationships, individuals evolve and change, independent of each other. It’s important that we stay curious about our partner and intentionally get to know that person through the different stages of growth and development. Don’t assume you know everything there is to know about your partner at all times. Asking questions as simple as “How are you feeling these days about me, yourself, our relationship?” and “Is there anything new in your life or anything you are feeling that you want to talk about? make room and encourage learning more about your partner’s growth.
Even the strongest relationships are not immune to discontent when viewed through the lens of other people's carefully curated images, but in practicing these seven tips it may become easier to see that the relationship you have is both good and enough.
For more secrets to long-term love, listen to the unedited conversation I had with that boy I met on Avenue A, my husband of 19 years Ed Feliciano, on the All Things Life podcast.
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