As couples therapist and relationship coach my desire is to help people create solid, sustainable relationships from the beginning. Part of that is making good choices about who to date and develop intimacy with and part of it is being aware of how solid relationships are formed and what helps keep them healthy and sustainable.
It turns out that people do research on this stuff so we have some experts to turn to. In particular John Gottman who works out of the University of Washington (http://www.gottman.com/) has studied thousands of couples and has some very good ideas about what creates strong, loving relationships that last. Drawing from of Gottman’s principles and my experience as a therapist, I have created this list of good habits. Here are the first two.
Good Habit #1: Be nice.
Kindness goes a long way in supporting relationships. Every time you act with meanness or mal intent toward your partner you make it harder to create trust and intimacy. Meanness causes scar tissue and too much scar tissue makes it hard to recover from small things and almost impossible to recover from big things. Likewise, every act of kindness in money in your relationship bank.
If you are not sure what meanness is I will spell it out here: Name calling, belittling, eye rolling. Lying. Yelling in a way that scares your partner, throwing things, breaking or destroying things that matter to your partner. Putdowns, expressing lack of confidence in your partner, making fun of your partner. I think you get the idea. All of these behaviors are mean spirited and corrosive to your relationship.
Good Habit #2: Care about your partner and love them for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
Know what your partner loves to do, loves to eat, where they love to go for fun. Know their dreams and hopes and help them come true even if you don’t benefit. Notice the way they are in the world and appreciate them for that. Loving someone just because they love you often isn’t enough. It’s important to love and respect them for them, not just for what they do for you.
Good Habit #3: Create shared meaning.
There’s a quote I like that speaks to this idea:
“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman’s Odyssey
Sometimes couples create shared meaning through raising children, having shared interests, working together on projects. There are two levels of creating shared meaning. One is about what I just talked about. But the other is what will carry you through in the long haul. It has more to do with shared values—what the two of you really care about, what you want your lives to be about, how you find meaning in your life.
I think this is especially helpful to couples who are planning to raise a family. Once the kids are grown and out of the house, couples often look at each other and wonder what to do next. If their relationship has meaning above and beyond raising children (a noble and worthy pursuit) they will have a stronger relationship when they are, so called, “empty nesters”.
Habit # 4: Share Power
An imbalance of power in a relationship is corrosive over time. It’s not that the power has to be equal all the time but that it is important that both people feel powerful in the relationship. Allow your partner to influence you. Practice being more powerful in areas of your relationship where you under-function. This mixes up the power dynamic in a positive way. For example, if you usually wait for your partner to initiate sex, try initiating and see what happens. If you are often the one that makes decisions (what to do Friday night, what movie to see etc.) let you partner step forward to make that decision. If you feel that there is a big imbalance of power in your relationship talk with your partner and see if, together, you can even it out.
Habit #5: Fight fair and kind
Conflict is inevitable and often healthy in relationships. It’s how we resolve conflict and disagreements that make a big difference to the quality of a relationship. How do you approach your partner when you are unhappy about something or you need to bring up a difficult topic? Gottman talks about the “soft start-up” and points out that most arguments end the way they start. If you approach your partner gently, without attack or criticism, chances are you will have a more positive outcome.
Also consider what you are fighting for. Do you just want to be “right” or “win”? Or, do you feel strongly about something that really impacts you? How can you communicate your need in a way that your partner can hear? I can guarantee that shouting at them doesn’t help them hear your point.
If you feel so frustrated that you want to yell, take a break. Walk around the block (tell your partner that is what you are doing—don’t just walk out), drink a glass of water, put on some music that relaxes you. Do something that will ground you and deescalate the conflict.
Mean fighting creates scar tissue and everybody loses. Remember too, that if you have children they are learning from you about how to resolve their own conflicts. They will most likely do what you do, so stay conscious about what you are teaching your kids about how to resolve disagreements.
Habit # 6 Appreciate your partner more than you criticize
I have been hearing a lot about the concept of a “feedback sandwich” lately where you start with the positive, talk about the behavior that you hope to change and then end with a final, positive, encouraging word. People tend to respond better when they don’t just hear criticism. Gottman says that in successful relationships the ratio is about 5:1. For every negative word or criticism you say to your partner you should say five positive things.
If this is difficult for you to do, start slowly. Appreciate one thing about your partner every day for a week. Then notice two things every day that you appreciate. Keep doing this until you can think of five things that you appreciate. It’s like a muscle. As you practice appreciating your partner it will become easier to notice and to say your appreciations out loud.
While you’re at it, you might want to appreciate yourself too. Sometimes we have a hard time giving to others what we can’t give to ourselves.
Habit #7 Make Dedicated time to be together
It’s the curse of modern society that we pride ourselves on how busy we are. Make sure in all that busy-ness that you remember to set aside dedicated time to attend to your relationship. Being with each other in a relaxed, unhurried way is a gift that you can give each other at least once a week. Making time for each other will support all your other interactions.
Habit #8 Show love and affection often
Having great loving, connected sex is one way of showing love and being affectionate, but small gestures of affection have a big impact. Loving touch even a quick hug or kiss creates a fabric of love and good will. Rather than run out of the house to get to your meeting on time, take a moment and kiss your partner good bye. Home late and exhausted from your day? Greet your partner with a hug before you collapse in front of the TV. You are at a crowded party each catching up with friends. Take a moments and check in with your partner: a wink, a quick squeeze of the hand—these little gestures can keep you connected.
Habit #9 Make time to be apart-have a healthy independent life
At the beginning of a relationship (aka love jail) it can feel great to be with each other 24/7. Don’t be fooled, that’s just hormones impacting your judgement. Sometimes time apart can be as important as time together. Developing independent friendships, hobbies or interests can add vitality and liveliness to a relationship. Try to have some balance from the beginning. Having a healthy independent life will ultimately make you more attractive to your partner, give you a healthy foundation for your relationship and give you time to take care of yourself outside of time with your partner.
Habit #10 Be creative together
Creativity is sexy! Make things, build things, design things together. This can be part of #3 (creating shared meaning) or it can just be about creating things together that mean something different for each of you. Also, supporting your partner in their creativity is a very loving thing to do. Singing, dancing, drawing, knitting, sewing, welding, candle making, gardening, programming, cooking are all generative acts. Enjoy them together.