What determines if a relationship thrives or wilts away? Is it love? Or a combination of several factors? We turn to science for the answer:
What is love to you? Is it the butterflies in your tummy each time they smile at you? Is it extravagant romantic gestures and love letters? Or is it just a small fire to kindle a lifelong relationship with someone?
Many couples who are head over heels in love slowly drift apart after long years together. Many others go on to get married, only to sign papers to a divorce a decade later.
Love obviously isn’t the only ingredient to a successful, happy relationship. So what is, then?
As usual, we look to science for the answer. Here are 8 scientifically-proven ways you can strengthen your relationship and have a happy life together:
1. Watch and discuss romantic flicks together
Romantic movies might not be your cup of tea, but a three-year study which involved 174 couples found that watching and discussing movies about relationships is as effective in lowering divorce rates as other, more intensive early marriage counselling programmes. Couples in movies could help you, the real life couple, take an objective look at your relationship.
“I think it’s the couples reinvesting in their relationship and taking a cold hard look at their own behavior that makes the difference,” explained Ronald Rogge, the lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
“The sad truth is that when life knocks you down, you come home and the people you are most likely to lash out at in frustration are the ones you love the most. For these couples to stop and look and say, ‘You know, I have yelled at you like that before. I have called you names before and that’s not nice. That’s not what I want to do to the person I love the most.’ Just that insight alone, is likely what makes this intervention work.”
Learn more about the research here.
2. Say “thank you”
When you’ve been with someone long enough, you tend to start taking them for granted. In the beginning you’d get butterflies when she makes you a surprise cake, but now you’d probably think you deserve it. That’s not a good way for a relationship to progress. You should always say thank you, and mean it when your significant other has done something nice for you.
Science backs it up. Research has shown that saying thank you could boost marital happiness, which in turn contributes to longer-lasting relationships.
“Feeling appreciated by your partner influences how you act in your relationship, and how much you want to stay in that relationship,” said study researcher Amie Gordon, of the University of California, Berkeley.
Plus point: Studies show that appreciating your partner (and showing it) not only makes your partner feel better, it makes you feel good too!
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
This is ultra vital, which you can see from the two times I repeated the word.
Couples who don’t communicate will find themselves slowly descending into a hell-hole of misunderstandings, resentment, and dissatisfaction. If you don’t already communicate well, learn to talk about your problems, your daily life, your hobbies, your dreams, anything really.
And make sure some of this communication is done face to face, as texting or Skype may not be sufficient, according to marital research.
4. Try new things together
Boredom can be a death sentence to long term relationships, research has found. That’s not much of a surprise seeing as we are creatures who constantly seek out new, exciting experiences.
One way of dealing with boredom is to constantly expand your horizons together. Learn something new together, go explore a new country together, or get into a new hobby together. This helps with self-growth, which in turn builds the foundation to stronger relationships.
Studies also show that couples who try new things often stay in happier relationships. Researchers believe that this is because doing new things could bring about the “butterflies” that first existed in a relationship.
5. Keep surprising each other
You know how in the beginning you’re always compelled to do nice things for your significant other? Surprise chocolates, surprise laundry, surprise flowers. They’re all abundant at the beginning of any relationship, but they peter out, which leads to boredom and dissatisfaction in your happy house.
To have a shot at a happy long-term relationship, keep the relationship fresh, just like it was at the beginning. Plan interesting dates, surprise them, go on holidays together. Make things exciting so your relationship stays exciting too.
6. Keep having sex
The importance of sex in keeping a relationship strong stays on even as you age. A more recent paper published last year found that older men and women who were sexually inactive or engaged in very little sexual activity reported lower levels of marital satisfaction, while couples who had more frequent sexual encounters (which include more than just intercourse) had happier, more positive marriages.
Scheduling sex into your calendars might take away some of the romance and excitement, but talking about it openly together could help if your bedroom time is dwindling. Going to bed at the same time would probably make sense too!
7. Pay attention to your partner’s random statements
Psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples for the past 40 years, trying to find out what makes relationships work. In 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a cosy bed and breakfast, and invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day.
As he studied them going about the day doing what you’d normally do at a B&B, he found out one critical factor which separated the successful relationships from the ones bound for failure.
Couples often make what Gottman call “bids” for connection. It could be something as simple as “look at that beautiful bird outside!”. The partner who said this isn’t just making a passing statement, they’re asking for a response from their partner, hoping for a connection over the bird.
There are generally two types of responses. Those who engaged with this bid for connection by showing interest, making conversation etc (what Gottman calls “turn-toward bids”), and those who didn’t engage with the bid (no response, responded minimally, continued what they were doing).
Gottman followed up with these couples for 6 years. And guess what? The couples who were still together after 6 years had “turn-toward bids” 87% of the time. Couples who had divorced had “turn-toward bids” only 33% of the time.
The takeaway? The next time he or she talks to you about football or beautiful dresses, don’t say “urgh”. Learn more about Gottman’s research here.
8. Celebrate big and small successes together
It’s important to celebrate big and small wins together. The next time your partner gets a promotion at work, or manages to bake a beautiful pavlova that doesn’t sink in the middle, or wins the Nobel prize, make it a point to celebrate!
Researchers found people whose spouses were supportive when things were going right believed the partners would also be helpful if things should go wrong.
“Just the perception that there would be support during the bad times increased their emotional intimacy, trust, and marital satisfaction,” said Shelly Gable, co-author of the study and professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California.
So the next time your partner comes home with their first not-so-stellar piece of art, smile and congratulate them, and find a spot on the wall for it!
Happy Valentine’s Day!