15 Ways to Have a Better Relationship, Based on Science
We get it - relationships are hard. Sometimes we might wonder if they were meant to be THIS hard - that, no matter how perfect, sweet, funny or attractive our partner is, they might sometimes drive us completely up the wall. In his excellent book ‘The All or Nothing Marriage’, Eli J. Finkel discusses the idea that, in the past, marriage and long term partnerships were based more on convenience and survival, and it is only in the last century that we’ve started expecting our partners to be more than this - to be our best friend, our steamy lover, our breakfast-in-bed chefs. Finkel makes an interesting argument that it is actually really unusual for people to be blissfully and perfectly matched, and in fact what is more common is a ‘good enough’ partnership.
With this in mind, we can take some of the pressure off ourselves if our relationships aren’t blissfully happy 100% of the time. That said, there are some science-backed ways of improving a relationship, which work on some of the research done on communication and emotions in the last decade. Many of these theories are based on the idea that a good relationship doesn’t just appear out of thin air when we meet our ‘soul-mate’ - but rather, develops over time with both people being open to change and able to grow together. With that in mind, here are 15 ways that you can have a better relationship - according to science.
1. Focus on eye contact
According to David Keatley, Director of Researchers in Behaviour Sequence Analysis (ReBSA) at the University of Lincoln, UK, “Eye contact can tell us if someone is listening and attending to us. It can tell us we have their attention. It can then show their emotion – concern, enjoyment, happiness, love.’
Tip: Next time you’re talking to your partner, make sure you’re keeping eye contact and showing that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying.
2. Schedule Sex!
Relationship expert Emily Nagoski, author of ‘Come as you Are’, describes the difference between types of arousal for different people. While some people might become spontaneously aroused, others might only feel sexual in response to stimulus - meaning that we can sometimes get out of sync with our partners. The answer? Making a time to focus on intimacy where both of you will be relaxed and available.
Tip: Discuss with your partner a time each week where you might want to get intimate - making sure there is enough time and privacy to really enjoy yourselves.
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Sometimes we might feel like, if we’ve found The One, we don’t need to think about boundaries or set expectations. In reality, however, boundaries are essential in even the best of relationships. Having a good awareness of your partner’s level of comfort with certain things (eg. looking through phone, posting on social media, discussing private issues with friends) means that you can both feel comfortable that the other person is going to respect this.
Tip: When things get official, start to introduce the idea of boundaries and talk about the expectations that you have for your partner.
We get it - sometimes arguments happen and things get ugly. John Gottman, one of the most respected relationship researchers in the field, emphasises the importance of repair after a dispute or argument. We can sometimes feel like the damage is done if we’ve said hurtful things or become angry or upset - but in reality it is how we repair the damage that matters. It is important to communicate to our partner the reasons behind the outburst, as well as what you are going to do differently next time - to restore a feeling of safety and security, and allow the relationship to move forward.
Tip: After an argument, choose a time to approach your partner where you are both calm, and talk through what happened to trigger the argument, the issues raised, and ways of managing things better next time.
5. Practice Emotion Regulation
Marsha Lineham, the founder of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), believes emotion regulation is the key to improving relationships and general wellbeing. Emotion regulation involves understanding and tolerating strong emotions, and using a number of tools to help us to feel calmer and more able to cope - this is particularly useful in relationships.
Tip: If you’re feeling angry or overwhelmed when arguing with your partner, see if you can take a step back and engage in a calming activity - such as having a shower, going for a walk or calling a friend.
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6. Avoid Comparisons
Now, more than ever, we are bombarded with images of other people’s happiness and seemingly perfect relationships - this can make our own, perfectly imperfect relationships, seem boring and disappointing in comparison. It is useful to remember that no relationship, as wonderful as it seems, is perfect, and by comparing relationships we risk giving ourselves a distorted view of what is important (especially since most people post their highlight reel to social media).
Tip: Limit your use of social media if you’re feeling concerned about your relationship, and instead focus on addressing the core issues that you’re noticing - whether this is communication, trust or intimacy.
7. Focus on Friendship
We can sometimes forget that the strongest relationships are actually built on a strong foundation of friendship. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to friend-zone your partner - but rather, that doing fun activities together, sharing personal jokes, and getting out of your comfort zone together can lift a relationship up enormously - and away from the domestic, day to day reality.
Tip: Consider a fun activity that you can do with your partner - whether this is playing online trivia, going on a hike together, or even creating a funny video together. Anything that gets you out of your ‘day to day’ and into a different head-space.
8. Absence makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Prolonged periods of time together can make us somewhat numb to our partner - they can just be ‘there’ and we can find ourselves annoyed by certain habits - or, just indifferent to their presence. The reality is that we do sometimes need to ‘miss’ our partners, and that there is a real need for ‘me time’ and personal space. Even if you’re stuck in the same house together for the duration, it might be useful to have ‘me’ days where you limit your interaction with your partner - and do exactly what you want to do. Time spent alone is refreshing and clarifying, particularly for introverts - and it can give us a new-found appreciation for our partners.
Tip: Discuss with your partner a day or more each week where you do things separately, and the rationale behind it.
9. Don’t Forget Physical Touch!
In her book ‘Touch’, Tiffany Field claims that in many circumstances, touch is stronger than verbal or emotional contact. Touch is critical for children's growth, development, and health, as well as for adults' physical and mental well-being.
Tip: When you’re with your partner, make sure to give them non-verbal signs of affection, such as a spontaneous hug, a pat on the back or a kiss on the cheek.
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10. Pick your Battles
Have you ever been in an argument with your partner that doesn’t really go anywhere? When we are co-existing with someone around the clock, we can often find ourselves annoyed by lots of things they’re doing. Unfortunately, these irritations can build up and contribute to an overall pattern of negative interactions in the relationship - leading to less sex, more dissatisfaction and greater incidences of separation. Choosing your battles - the really important issues that need to be discussed - is a useful strategy, and gives us permission to let the little things slide.
Tip: Next time you’re about to chide your partner about something, ask yourself - is it that important?
11. Find your Tribe
Strange that a relationship tip actually directs you to spend more time apart, but bear with me - research shows that people with the highest levels of wellbeing generally have strong relationships outside their marriage - whether this is social groups, close friends, sporting or community groups. Social support is a predictor of a number of positive health outcomes, and the more positive relationships we have in our lives, the better our individual relationships are. Tip: Reflect on your current social connections, and if you’re feeling a gap, investigate online or in-person catch ups such as a book club, group fitness class, hiking group or volunteering position.
12. Beware the HALT
Even the most harmonious relationship can be tested in those moments when both people are sleep deprived, grieving, stressed, hungry or in pain. Science tells us that our ability to regulate our emotions and feel empathy for those around us is severely compromised when we’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (or HALT for short) - and so it makes sense that this is not the best time for big conversations or important decisions to be made.
Tip: If you find yourself feeling annoyed or angry at your partner, take a moment to consider whether this is a HALT situation, and then take steps to remedy it (eg. have something to eat, have a nap, and leave the conversation for another day).
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13. Sync Up
Research tells us that we’re much more likely to feel connected with our partner if we have similar schedules - meaning the same bedtime, similar times getting up, and sharing meal-times. This makes a lot of sense, but it can be hard to achieve this on a daily basis with unpredictable working schedules. Nevertheless, it is good to keep in mind that similar routines means more quality time together, and the opportunity to connect at the beginning and end of each day.
Tip: Discuss with your partner some days of the week when it might be possible to line up your schedules or share a lunch break or quick breakfast before work.
14. Unplug in the bedroom
Did you know that there is evidence that partners who have a TV in their bedroom have less sex than those who don’t? That study was done years ago, way before cell phones - but you can imagine what that looks like now. The reality is that phones are distracting, and easy to use when you’re tired and worn out - so have a permanent place in the bedroom.
Tip: Talk with your partner about potentially banning phones from the bedroom for some nights of the week - and see what else you find to occupy your time!
15. Practice Relationship Hygiene
This does not mean things like grooming and tooth-brushing (although hopefully those are happening as well). Ursula Le Guin has a beautiful quote that says ‘"Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone; it had to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new." This is particularly insightful when we consider that within the relationship are two people always growing, always changing - and this will impact the relationship. Relationship hygiene really just means checking in every once in a while to see that you’re on the same track, that you’re working towards your goals, that issues are being resolved and that each person is satisfied. This might sound strange, but planning these check-ins means that you can address issues as they come up, rather than in a crisis six months down the track. Best of all, you can frame these around a date night, and what’s sexier than talking about life goals over a delicious meal?
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