- Everyone's relationship can use a boost. Knowing strategies to fix problems or prevent them is important.
- You can "do more" by working on the relationship or "demand less" by focusing on managing expectations.
- You can better appreciate what you have by focusing on the positives and what works well.
When it comes to relationships, we tend to overcomplicate things.
We start wondering if this person is “the one” and if everything will remain perfect. Inevitably, reality falls short of our expectations. When we encounter problems, it can feel overwhelming. Or perhaps we start to feel adrift in love.
How will you deal with this? What should you do? You could read the scientific literature, go to counseling, or wade through all of the questionable relationship advice, hoping to uncover something useful.
It’s a lot to process, making you want to do nothing and hope for the best. While that may make you feel better temporarily, it’s not what will ultimately make your relationship better.
Ready for some good news? Relationship improvement is simpler than it may seem. It comes down to three basic strategies.
1. Do More
The “do more” types are the people who see a problem and attack it head-on. If you’re this type, you have difficulty just sitting there. Instead, you want to do something—anything. You want to dive in and devote the time and energy to fix what’s wrong. You like to be proactive by looking for what you can add or improve to address potential problems before they arise.
As Nicholas Sparks wrote in The Notebook, “So, it's not gonna be easy. It's gonna be really hard. We're gonna have to work at this every day…” That’s OK. It’s natural and part of how people build strong relationships. The work makes it worth it. Here are a few ways to do more:
- The four-hour relationship: Doing more doesn’t have to be time-consuming. A week has 168 hours. Start by making your relationship a priority for four of those hours each week to see the benefits. To make that time even more impactful, have date nights featuring "N.I.C.E." activities or those that are "new, interesting, challenging, and exciting." Research shows that couples who do things together with those four qualities have better relationships (Aron et al., 2022).
- Building relationship skills: Spend some of those four hours each week building your relationship skills. There are lots to choose from, but here are some of the best: communication, conflict resolution, how well you know your partner, how well you know yourself, life management, stress management, and sexual/romantic skills (Epstein et al., 2013). The good news is that most of these skills relate to self-improvement (i.e., you don’t need your partner’s help), which makes them easier to implement. Because they’re skills, it also means there is always room for improvement, so returning to them often is helpful. It’s worth the effort because research shows that the better you are at these skills, the better your relationship will be.
- Doing more in bed: Here’s a fun one: Doing more sexually, particularly in terms of greater sexual/erotic variety, increases sexual arousal and desire (Morton & Gorzalka, 2015). More desire and arousal improve sexual satisfaction by counteracting familiarity and boredom, which helps minimize the potential for infidelity. Win-win.
2. Demand Less
Don’t feel like you have the time or energy to add more to your already hectic life? Sometimes the answer isn’t to do more but to want less. This isn’t suggesting that you should throw out all of your standards. Rather, you want to properly calibrate your expectations and be more realistic. Savor having enough.
The “demand less” strategy will appeal to those who realize how their own interpretation or evaluation of their partner’s actions or their own rules for the relationship impact their happiness. For example, seeing a partner’s occasional moodiness as a deal breaker or believing couples in good relationships don’t fight are both counterproductive.
The key to this approach is to realize that, as Hamlet said, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words, the problem may not be the relationship, but your perspective. Learning more about what makes relationships work will help.
- Soulmate solution? Everyone loves a little romance in their relationship. There are few things more romantic than soulmates. However, seeing your partner as a soulmate can force them to live up to a nearly impossible standard. That’s because no one is really that flawless. Soulmates are allegedly your perfect match—the one person who is best suited for you, the person you’re destined to be with (Knee & Petty, 2013). When your partner inevitably falls short of soulmate-worthy performance, you’re left with doubt. Now you may wonder if this is the right relationship, the right partner, and your relationship may feel like a fraud. All for potentially nothing. It’s unfair. The fact is, soulmates are more mythical than magical. Ditch the impossible standards.
- Manage expectations. In the movie "Up in the Air," Anna Kendrick's character, Natalie, has an extensive and oddly specific list of what she wants in a partner and self-righteously proclaims, “I just don't want to settle.” Vera Farmiga’s more experienced character, Alex, explains that not checking every box on a partner wish list isn’t a failure. Unrealistic expectations, however, will absolutely fail you because they set your partner and your relationship up for constant disappointment. Instead, demand less by realizing you’re not perfect, which makes it perfectly reasonable that you’re partner isn’t either. Having exceedingly high expectations and always wanting more can result in not appreciating the great partner you have.
- Don’t go looking for problems. Even if your expectations are properly calibrated, you may still be overly critical of your partner and relationship. We have a natural negativity bias that encourages us to pay more attention to the bad aspects of an experience (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). One way that happens is by engaging in “problemicity” or finding problems where they don’t exist. In fact, research suggests that when your relationship doesn’t have any big problems, you tend to overemphasize the smaller issues (Levari et al., 2018). An easy way to demand less is by not manufacturing drama and seeking out problems.
Careful, though: Demanding less is not about disregarding all of your standards. While lowering expectations a bit can improve happiness, if you go too far you’ll surely be miserable. Go far enough and the world’s worst relationship may seem acceptable. Ultimately, the best standards and expectations are reasonable and realistic.
3. Better Appreciate What You Have
Good news: The best fixes are sometimes the simplest ones. If finding time to “do more” feels impossible and your expectations are honestly fair, you may think, “Now what?” Well, you can use perhaps the easiest strategy of them all: Cherish your current relationship. Alan Kay said, “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” Wise words. Time to get wiser about your love life.
- Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Sometimes relationship improvement is as simple as being more thankful for what you already have. Take stock of everything about your relationship that is easy, comfortable, uncomplicated, stable, and predictable. We take so much for granted in our relationship, but especially these basic building blocks. But they are each fundamental to your relationship’s success. Something as simple as expressing gratitude about them (or other positive aspects of your relationship) improves relationship quality (Algoe et al., 2013).
- Celebrate the positives. It’s also OK to take that appreciation one step further by doing even more to highlight the good parts. Researchers call this capitalization and find that savoring the good news and positive moments in a relationship boosts individual partners’ well-being and self-esteem (Gable & Reis, 2010). Capitalization also increases the relationship’s closeness, satisfaction, intimacy, and commitment. Ultimately, good relationships have a lot more positives than negatives. We have to take the time to notice.
- Use your illusions. Now you may wonder if you can take all this gratitude and positivity too far. What if your partner and relationship really aren’t as great as you’re making it seem? What if you’re wrong, or worse, lying to yourself? That’s OK. In fact, holding positive illusions, whereby you see your relationship as better than it is, actually helps the relationship (Murray et al., 1996). Our overly generous assessments give our partner a goal to aim for that encourages their improvement (e.g., “My partner thinks I’m really wonderful, so I better make sure I am so they’re not disappointed.”), which ultimately benefits the relationship.
Which of these three strategies is best? Whichever one you’re most likely to actually use. That comes down to how you prefer to tackle problems.
- If you’re action-oriented, do more.
- Can you be a bit picky, judgmental, or hard to please? Demand less.
- If you feel like you simply need to take a step back and reevaluate, take a moment to better appreciate what you have.
Pick the one that’s going to let you get started right away. Once you put that into effect, you’ll build some positive momentum that you can use to add other strategies. Mix and match, or stick with the one that works best. The only thing that matters is that you’re working to improve your relationship. Its future is too important to do anything else.
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Algoe, S. B., Fredrickson, B. L., & Gable, S. L. (2013). The social functions of the emotion of gratitude via expression. Emotion, 13(4), 605–609. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032701
Aron, A., Lewandowski, G., Branand, B., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. (2022). Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of others in self: An updated review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221110630
Epstein, R., Warfel, R., Johnson, J., Smith, R., & McKinney, P. (2013). Which relationship skills count most? Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12 (4), 297–313, https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2013.836047
Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 42, pp. 195–257). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(10)42004-3
Knee, C. R., & Petty, K. N. (2013). Implicit theories of relationships: Destiny and growth beliefs. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships (pp. 183–198). Oxford University Press.
Levari, D. E., Gilbert, D. T., Wilson, T. D., Sievers, B., Amodio, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (2018). Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment. Science, 360(6396), 1465–1467.
Morton, H., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2015). Role of partner novelty in sexual functioning: A review. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(6), 593–609. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2014.958788
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions in romantic relationships: Love is not blind, but prescient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(6), 1155–1180.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320.