Full disclosure: I’m not saying relationships are simple. Thriving, lasting relationships are not quick and easy endeavors. I’m also and absolutely not saying there’s some magic little “secret” that will suddenly transform your partnerships into perfection. Oh, and let me also be clear: Couples therapy is something all couples should do early and often, and best done before you’re struggling. Think of good therapy as proactive, one-on-two education—and some of the most practical, life-changing education you’ll ever receive! *
What I am offering here is a little shortcut through the crowded forest of relationship advice, inspired by a question I was asked (again) last week—a version of the same question I’ve been asked (literally) about 8,346 times: “Okay, Carol, what are the top three things I should/shouldn’t do, know, or learn to improve my relationship?!”
As a relationship researcher for the past two and a half decades, and with my teaching and research mostly focused on how to create long-lasting partnerships, I love the question. It gives me hope. The question reminds me that people do understand they have agency. That they can make changes toward bettering their own relationships. That we as a social species know, inherently, that our relationships are mini works of art and we are the co-creators.
So, without further delay—a trio of my favorite, evidence-based hacks for improving your relationship or marriage, each requiring just a few extra minutes (max) per week. Oh, and some don’t even require that your partner know what you’re up to.
What I am offering here isa little shortcut through the crowded forest of relationship advice, inspired by a question I was asked (again) last week . . . “Okay, Carol, what are the top three things I should/shouldn’t do, know, or learn to improve my relationship?!”
I’ve chosen just three even though I want to offer ten. But another thing I understand about our silly human species: We like things in threes. And they come mostly from the fabulous work of Dr. Eli Finkel, a psychologist and author of one of my all-time favorite relationship books, The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. I highly recommend this 331-page, insanely useful guide. (It also makes a great wedding or engagement gift. You’re welcome.) It’s wicked practical, super engaging, and written for anyone wanting their relationship to work better. And my favorite part? He introduced me to the concept of “lovehacking”—how any of us can employ research-proven, small behaviors to make our relationships better with just a little time, micro-effort, and no cost (literally).
He had me at “little time” and “no cost.”
And, of course, I’m forever a fangirl of “research-proven.”
So, obviously, I also tried them. Not just these three, but pretty much all. I cannot confirm nor deny if I told my husband of twenty-eight years what I was up to. But I can confirm that these three were my favorite because they had the biggest impact with the least amount of effort. Three cheers for “little effort”—especially right now when so much else in the world needs our love and attention.
Whenever I teach my college students about conflict, I try to recall a recent conflict my sweet spouse and I have had—to offer a fresh, ripe example. I’m never at a loss, and I know it’s important to model for the mostly eighteen to twenty-one-year-old students in my stead that happy, thriving couples do have conflict. Sometimes lots of it. I also remind them there is one thing about which the relationship research is very clear: How you fight is a key indicator of whether your relationship will flourish or flop, and 69% of all conflicts in relationships are “unresolvable.” Yes, meaning most of a couple’s ongoing conflicts are things you can expect to simply (or not so simply, at times) manage.
What I also share is one of Dr. Finkel’s greatest hacks for refining the “how” of your conflict. When you are in—or approaching—an argument with your partner, ask yourself how a neutral third party would see it. If there were some neutral observer who wanted the best for both of you, how might they see both of your perspectives? How might they find a way to see the good that can come out of the conflict? It’s a practical practice in empathy, with research-supported and profound results.
If there were some neutral observer who wanted the best for both of you, how might they see both of your perspectives? How might they find a way to see the good that can come out of the conflict? It’s a practical practice in empathy, with research-supported and profound results.
In Finkel’s research with 120 couples over two years, the partners who put this perspective into practice maintained a higher level of marital happiness than the couples that did not. Boom! And it literally took just a few extra minutes of their time per month.
And let’s be real: It can work in all your relationships. Try it with a colleague. Your kid. The neighbor who drives you nuts. Your boss. Growing our empathy is a practice of growing connection with our partners, with those who sign our paychecks, with family, and even—and perhaps most importantly—with(in) ourselves.
Okay, so this “lovehack” takes zero extra seconds, can be employed in broad daylight, or the middle of a large crowd, and/or while sitting on the sofa with your toddlers (or teenagers or dogs) running circles around you! (Yes, I’ve tried it in all of the above conditions at some point in our marriage.)
And I know, I know: It sounds painfully obvious.
But ask the majority of couples together more than a few years and they will tell you: We find ourselves doing less of the little things (holding hands, hugging) that make a big difference, mostly because we are busy and consumed by doing a lot of the other little things (packing lunches, picking up dog poop, taking out the recycling) that are also important in making life work.
Research (and common sense), though, reminds us why and how making an effort to do some of these little things—like touching your partner (non-sexually)—is a great investment in your shared-emotional-bank-account.
In one experiment, researchers asked couples to watch a movie together. Half of the couples were told to simply touch their partner in a warm, positive way while watching—hold their hand, place a hand gently on their leg, put an arm around their shoulder. The other half were told to sit near a partner but not touch them. The result? People in the study who had been touched felt significantly more secure and loved by their partner, even when they knew their partner had been told to touch them. Boom!
As obvious as it might sound, this study reminds me yet again that small, positive things done often matter. And it’s a simple reminder that we humans are actually pretty darn simple. We crave connection. We want to be seen, adored, and acknowledged. And human touch is a nonverbal manifestation of that relational warmth, telling us—without having to say anything at all—that we can count on each other.
Message. Received. (Insert hand-holding emoji here.)
The other message I received from Dr. Finkel’s research is that when it comes to delighting in even the tiniest bits of good news of my partner, family, or friends, research shows that using “enthusiastic, celebratory” responses—not just being quietly supportive or mildly enthusiastic—actually creates significantly greater feelings of love, connection, and joy. Oh, and not just for the person sharing their little wins, but also in us/me/you—those of us doing the delighting in the other’s news.
When it comes to delighting in even the tiniest bits of good news of my partner, family, or friends, research shows that using “enthusiastic, celebratory” responses—not just being quietly supportive or mildly enthusiastic—actually creates significantly greater feelings of love, connection, and joy.
That, my friends, is (quite literally) the definition of win-win! (Insert clapping hands emoji and confetti emoji and champagne glasses clinking emoji, and maybe even a few bold red exclamation point emoji!)
And this doesn’t mean you need to jump up and down, happy dancing around the kitchen when your partner shares they submitted that overdue report or leaned into a hard conversation with a friend. An “enthusiastic, celebratory” response can also look like asking questions about the little “win,” or just being generally engaged during your partner’s sharing. Literally, doing so takes very few minutes of your time but will result in priceless deposits in your couple-connection-account.
Yes, relationships are verbs. No, there are no real “secrets”—beyond knowing great relationships are a lot of daily, diligent work.
But, the good news? Great relationship research does give us some solid clues about where to put (or not put) our precious energies. And that, my friends, seems like it’s worth at least a little happy dance, and maybe even an exclamation point (or three!!)!
*Note: Some health insurance plans cover couples therapy. If yours doesn’t and budgets are tight, look for therapists near you who offer sliding scale prices. You can also now find online therapists who will do virtual sessions with you and your partner.
Carol Bruess (last name rhymes with “peace”) is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, studying and writing about relationships. She is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals (I mean, it’s what all the cool kids are doing), and is happy-dancing her way through empty-nesting (although don’t tell her kids; they think she’s all weepy). Check out her books, TEDx talk “Are All Relationships Messy?” and her sewing/design shenanigans over at www.carolbruess.com.
BY Carol Bruess - June 25, 2020
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.