Are there couples in happier and healthier relationships? Sure. But, in most cases, it has little to do with the amount of love or commitment one has for the other. Just as there is a science behind other elements of human relationships, (see: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friend’s and Influence People) there is a science to a healthy and fulfilling relationship. And, as with any science, there are multiple elements and variables.
What are the secrets to a healthy relationship? Read on, friend!
“What’s normal anyway?”
“Relationships don’t always make sense. Especially from the outside.” – Sarah Dessen
First, the obvious: relationships are complex. Like, really complex. Relationships are complex because, well, human beings are complex. And some humans are more complex than others. And fickle. Also, sometimes just downright strange. For some people, relationships bring out the worst in them – sad but true.
Second, all relationships are different. Is this cliché and overly general? Yes, it is. But since one of our favorite past times is playing the comparison game, it bears repeating. Don’t play the relationship comparison game – it’s a no-win contest. And, again, there are just too many variables and things unseen at play.
Anyways, here’s a rather long list of things that are normal in a relationship that, for some reason, many of us think aren’t. After that, we’ll get to the science-y stuff.
- Long periods of silence: Who at one point hasn’t thought that zero decibel level hanging in the air wasn’t awkward? Anyways, the longer you and your significant other are together, the more often you’ll hear the proverbial pin drop.
- Needing time apart: No matter how fulfilling, a relationship isn’t meant to replace an individual’s need for space. Constantly being in arm’s distance of each other isn’t healthy.
- Feeling distracted (especially in conversation): Humans don’t have the best attention span, to begin with. Couple this with the fact that, untrained, we’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, and one of you is likely to feel ignored at some point.
- Having ahem, “fantasy” moments on occasion (on occasion!): The infatuation you felt when first dating your spouse/significant other? Yeah, that’s not supposed to last. What are we to do with that overactive imagination and some Hollywood hunk/babe staring back at us through the tube?
- Feeling the need to “be free”: This kind of goes along with #2. It’s possible (probable) that you’ll feel “shackled” by your relationship at some point. It’s only natural, then, that we think about what’s on the other side of the door.
- Being really annoyed at a partner’s habit: It never ceases to amaze how many people in committed relationships are easily offended by their partner’s insistence on quitting ‘x’ habit. Really? Did you expect them to fall in love with biting your fingernails and leaving dirty socks on the ground too?
- Not getting on with one of their friends: There are far too many people out there for everyone to tolerate one another. Personalities clash. Read through the Jungian typologies, the Zodiac signs, the Chinese chart, etc., etc. With that said, it’s your duty to straighten out that friend who steps out of line (e.g. the drunkard who makes the offensive jokes at every get-together, the misogynist, etc.)
- Telling a white (or not so white) lie: In a perfect world and in a perfect relationship, we’d have the courage to speak the truth in every circumstance. But this isn’t a perfect world, and there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. But again, there are commonsense boundaries never to be crossed.
- Faking or exaggerating sexual excitement: Uh, ladies? *Nervous laughter* It’s getting warm in here…moving on!
- Leaving a skeleton or two: Omitting certain things about one’s past is more common than you think. While psychologists definitely won’t get on board with leaving out “Any data that could hurt a potential partner,” – and rightly so, by the way – the tell-all, church confessional, no-holds-barred, brutal truth type relationship is a bit extreme.
Feeling more normal already, are we? Wonderful! Let’s get to the heart of the matter.
10 ‘Science-y’ Secrets of a Healthy Relationship
“Women marry men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed.” – Albert Einstein
Know how to argue
Arguments happen in relationships and are sometimes necessary for clearing the air and resolving a conflict. But far too many people in committed relationships attack their partner instead of the issue. At no time should personal insults fly and self-esteem be sunk.
Focus on the crux of the matter. Learn to express your thoughts and feelings without offending the person. It is possible to respect and love your partner while having an argument. If things heat up to the point where you may say something that you later regret, simply say so and walk away.
Keep the candle lit
Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds are professors at Harvard Medical School and certified therapists. They’ve also been married for over 40 years. Schwartz and Olds are adamant that couples not get too complacent in their relationship.
“We call it the rustiness phenomenon,” says Olds, “Couples get out of the habit of sex, of being incredibly in love, and often for good reasons: work, children, a sick parent. But that type of love can be reignited.”
Prioritize quality time
This one is rather straightforward but nonetheless vitally important. While you may never duplicate those first couple of years of marriage or courtship, making an effort to spend quality time is a responsibility of anyone in a long-term relationship.
Quality time is necessary to maintain that special relationship bond and to keep the lines of communication open. Try having at least one night alone per week to focus on your partner only.
Give and take alone time
In a long-running study by researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, psychologists conclude, “Having enough space or privacy in a relationship is more important for a couple’s happiness than having a good sex life.” In other words, personal space is pretty dang important.
Dr. Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan, says that giving and taking personal space makes each partner happier and less bored while giving them necessary alone time to process their thoughts and relax.
Practice relationship gratitude
Nobody likes feeling like they’re unappreciated, especially someone in a committed relationship. It’s essential, then, to make sure that you’re not taking your partner for granted by practicing gratitude. As it turns out, practicing gratitude is not only mentally and physically healthy, but also helpful for nurturing relationships.
You can show your gratitude by voicing it (always advisable!), leaving a nice card or note, giving them a small gift, cooking for them, or taking them out for a special night.
Keep learning about them
How much do you know about your loved one, really? Here’s an experiment: during a nice dinner (maybe a glass of wine or two), ask them, “Tell me something about you that I don’t know.”
After their initial shock and disbelief, you may be surprised at the answer. You see, stuff like this is relationship gold. Few things keep a relationship going and improve the partnership more than keeping the lines of communication both open and interesting.
Make eye contact
Strange as it may sound, making deliberate eye contact with your partner can increase feelings of closeness. Research seems to affirm this finding, as well: “…couples who participated in mutual eye contact reported stronger feelings … (including) higher feelings of affection, passionate love, dispositional love, and liking for their partner.”
Try this: while relaxing with your partner on the couch (or someone else where you two are in close proximity), look over and hold your gaze. If necessary, initiate some sudden movement to grab their attention. They’ll probably laugh at first, but it’ll feel amazing!
Try something new
We’re all overworked and overstressed. Money may be tight and time hard to come by. But whenever you’re able, try having a unique experience with your partner. Research shows that trying new and exciting things increases relationship gratification.
Ideas? Hiking, horseback riding, camping, picnicking, exercising. Basically, anything you can do together that is out of the ordinary.
Physical intimacy – not necessarily sex – is a great way to give your relationship a boost. Cuddling boosts the “bonding hormone” in the brain called oxytocin while increasing feelings of trust and generosity between partners.
Cuddling can be as simple as holding your partner during a movie or drawing them in close while walking in a park. Bedtime cuddling is always a good idea too!
It’s fair to say that we all possess varying levels of empathy. But even making an effort to understand your partner while reciprocating love and understanding go a long way.
Your partner knows and loves you enough to appreciate when you go the extra mile for them. So pay attention, act compassionate, and be present!