We all want to have healthy relationships, but most of us were never really taught about what that actually means. As a therapist with over a decade of experience working with couples, here are my top tips for how to have a good, healthy relationship. The key is being communicative and proactive.
1. Do the things you did the first year you were dating.
As the months and years roll on, we tend to slink into our proverbial sweatpants and get lazy in our relationship. We lose our patience, gentleness, thoughtfulness, understanding, and the general effort we once made toward our mate. Think back to the first year of your relationship and write down all the things you used to do for your partner. Now start doing them again.
2. Ask for what you want.
Over time, we assume that our partner knows us so well that we don’t need to ask for what we want. What happens when we make this assumption? Expectations are set, and just as quickly, they get deflated. Those unmet expectations can leave us questioning the viability of our partnership and connection. Keep in mind that “asking for what you want” extends to everything from emotional to sexual wants.
3. Become an expert on your partner.
Think about who your mate really is and what excites them, both physically and emotionally. We can become consumed by what we think they want, as opposed to tuning in to what truly resonates with them. Remember that if it’s important to your partner, it doesn’t have to make sense to you. You just have to do it.
4. Ask questions beyond just “How was your day?”
At the end of a long day, we tend to mentally check out of our lives and, consequently, our relationship. We rely on the standard question, “How was your day?” But because we hear that question so often, many of us will reflexively just respond with the bare minimum: “Fine. How was yours?” This does nothing to improve your connection and can actually damage it because you’re losing the opportunity to regularly connect in a small way.
If your initial “How was your day?” doesn’t spark much conversation, try asking more creative follow-up questions: “What made you smile today?” or “What was the most challenging part of your day?” You’ll be amazed at the answers you’ll get, with the added benefit of gaining greater insight into your significant other.
5. Create a weekly ritual to check in with each other.
It can be short or long, but it begins with asking each other what worked and didn’t work about the previous week and what can be done to improve things this coming week. Additionally, use this opportunity to get on the same page with your schedules, plan a date night, and talk about what you would like to see happen in the coming days, weeks, and months in your relationship. Without an intentional appointment to do a temperature check, unmet needs and resentments can build.
6. Keep it sexy.
What might change in your relationship if both you and your partner committed to increasing the behaviors you each find sexy and limiting those that aren’t? Think about this in the broadest form. “Sexy” can certainly refer to bedroom preferences, but it also represents what excites us about our mate in our day-to-day lives. Do you find it sexy if they help with the housework? Do you find it “unsexy” when they use the restroom with the door wide-open? Talk about what it specifically means to “keep it sexy” in your relationship. Be amazed, be humored, and be inspired.
7. Get creative about the time you spend together.
Break out of the “dinner and a movie” routine, and watch how a little novelty can truly rejuvenate your relationship. On a budget and can’t go big? Jump on the internet to look for “cheap date ideas” and be blown away at the plethora of options. Can’t afford a sitter? Try swapping babysitting time with friends that have kids. It’s free, and they will likely be thrilled to take your kids because they will get to take advantage when they drop their kids at your place.
8. Get it on.
Unless you have committed to an asexual partnership, sex and touch (kissing, holding hands, cuddling, etc.) are vital components of a romantic relationship. How much sex a couple has is, of course, up to the particular pair of individuals, so it’s imperative that you discuss your ideas about it in order to manage any desire discrepancy. Rare are the moments when both partners are “in the mood” at the exact same second, but in general, most people tend to “get there” after the first few minutes even if they weren’t initially in the mood.
9. Take a (mental) vacation, every day.
Life and work distractions can become paramount in our minds, and that leaves little time or energy for our partner. Practice the art of “Wearing the Relationship Hat.” This means that, barring any emergencies or deadlines, we are fully present when we’re with our mate. We truly hear what they are saying (instead of pretending to listen), we leave our distractions behind, and we don’t pick them up again until the sun comes up and we walk out the door.
10. Take “fight breaks” when you need them.
When conflicts inevitably come up, remember to approach them thoughtfully and with a lot of kindness toward your partner and yourself. If you see the stress beginning to escalate during a conversation about a conflict, one or both of you can call a break so that cooler heads can prevail. The crux of this tool lies in the fact that you must pick a specific time to revisit the conversation (i.e., 10 minutes from now, 2 p.m. on Tuesday, etc.) so that closure can be achieved.
11. When in conflict, dig deep to unearth your true feelings.
In most disagreements, we communicate from the “top layer,” which is the obvious emotions such as anger, annoyance, and the like. Leading from this place can create confusion and defensiveness, and it can ultimately distract from the real issue. Start communicating from the “bottom layer,” which are the feelings that are really driving your reactions, such as disappointment, rejection, loneliness, or disrespect.
This type of expression creates an instant sense of empathy because it requires honesty and vulnerability to share from this space. Tension will dissipate, and from here, solutions can spring. Just be sure to use kind, nonreactive phrasing when expressing these bottom layer feelings, such as “I felt hurt by…” as a replacement for “You’re such a jerk,” etc.
12. Seek to understand, not agree.
Easy in concept, difficult in application. Conversations quickly turn to arguments when we’re invested in hearing our partner admit that we were right or when we are intent on changing their opinion. Choose to approach a conversation as an opportunity to understand your significant other’s perspective as opposed to waiting for them to concede. From this perspective, we have an interesting dialogue and prevent a blowout or lingering frustration.
13. Make your apology count.
It’s well understood that apologizing is a good thing, but it only makes a real impact when you mean it. Saying things like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I’m sorry you see it that way,” or “I’m sorry if I upset you” are a waste of time and breath. Even if you don’t agree that your action was wrong, you will never successfully argue a feeling.
Accept that your partner feels hurt. From this place, a real apology can have a significant impact. When you love your partner and hurt them (intentionally or not), you can always legitimately apologize for the pain you caused, regardless of your perspective on what you did or didn’t do.
You are now officially armed with the comprehensive guide for how to have a healthy relationship.