You could read a dozen articles to improve your love life, but if you don’t use any of it, why bother? Here’s how to put that good advice to use.
If we have 60 seconds of skin-to-skin contact, it generates enough love and good will to keep us in a good place all day. Snuggling with him in the morning should be a no-brainer. And yet, for the vast majority of our relationship, I hopped out of bed and started my day without pausing for that moment of connection. Why was it so hard to do something so simple, especially since I knew full well just how powerful that tiny action could be?
My guilt was somewhat mitigated by the fact that my sex therapy practice is filled with couples who also struggle to put effort into their relationship. The reality is that having a great relationship doesn’t need to be as hard as it often feels. There is so much smart — and actionable — relationship advice out there. We know the things that make our partner happy and keep our relationship solid. So why do we struggle to follow through?
If you’re like me, here are some tips for ensuring that you actually follow through on relationship advice and cultivate a happier and healthier relationship.
View your relationship like a project
I’m consistently shocked by how many of my clients think it is “normal” for relationships to become boring and strained. “You just can’t keep the spark alive for that long,” one partner will say, while the other nods somberly.
That doesn’t have to be your fate. You just have to be intentional about maintaining a healthy relationship. It’s crucial to work on your relationship, instead of relying on your relationship to work. Eli Finkel, a professor at Northwestern University, said, “It’s tragic for an otherwise-good relationship to deteriorate badly because the partners never made the effort to address negative trends early on.”
“Intentional” is one of Rachel and Dave Hollis’s favorite words. Ms. Hollis is a New York Times best-selling author, and Mr. Hollis is the chief executive of the Hollis Company, a life-coaching firm. Together they host a podcast called “Rise Together,” which is all about helping couples have exceptional relationships. Jointly they told me in an email: “All of the good stuff in life: success, health, knowledge, a strong family — all of it requires you to put in time and effort — not for a season but every day for the rest of your life. When you’re intentional about having an exceptional relationship you plan your life, your schedule, etc. around that.”
This also requires viewing ourselves as works in progress. Be honest: What have you done in the last month to actively work on being the best version of yourself for your partner?
Identify your values
In his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a ——” Mark Manson notes that the first step toward any sort of self-improvement is identifying our own values.
He argues that the key to happiness is to not care about most things, and choosing a few specific, values-based things to actually care about. It’s an approach the Hollises agree with. “We think the most important foundation for a couple is establishing your relationship values,” they said. “Essentially, deciding which things matter most to you together so you know where to put your time and your effort.”
The thing about forming new habits is that the behaviors themselves often aren’t intrinsically motivating. But if we can connect to the underlying values behind those actions, that can be much more powerful. You’re not just making an effort to give your partner more compliments or do the dishes without being asked; you’re working on becoming a specific kind of partner, like a sensitive, kind or trustworthy partner.
To identify the values in your relationship, try having a conversation with your partner about the following questions:
“What do you think defines a great relationship?”
“What qualities in a relationship are most important to you?”
“What would you like more of in our relationship?”
Get curious about your partner
The reason I know my husband loves cuddling so much is because I asked him, “What are the top three ways that you like to be shown love?”
After 12 years together, I think I know the guy pretty well, but I still like asking him those kinds of questions. For me, the concept of curiosity keeps me on my toes and prevents me from settling into complacency. It means there is always something new that I can learn about him. If you’re having trouble identifying core values in your relationship, or you want to start a bit smaller, the “top three” question is a great one to begin with.
Pick a starting place
Instead of trying to overhaul your relationship in one fell swoop, try to pick one specific starting place for improvements. The Hollises said that laughter is one of their core values. They told me, “It may sound cheesy but we are best friends first and laughing together is what made us friends in the first place.” From there, they brainstormed ways to bring more laughter into their lives. “Can we watch a comedy special, can we play a game, can we go on a road trip, do something we’ve never done before, add a date night on the calendar, plan a trip? There are all sorts of roads that will get you to your goal but you only see the available paths when you’re looking for them.”
Once you have a list of possibilities, pick one to start with. Barrie Davenport, author of “Mindful Relationship Habits,” said in an email: “It’s impossible to successfully make several changes at a time because we’re rewiring our brains to accommodate new behaviors. Just one new behavior can feel overwhelming until we groove new neural pathways to make the behavior automatic.”
Having trouble picking your starting place? In his book “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” Mr. Finkel outlines eight “love hacks” that are effective at bringing couples closer together. Mr. Finkel recommends picking a specific love hack with your partner, then creating a concrete game plan for putting it to work. I asked Mr. Finkel to share a few of his favorites, and he outlined three:
1. Reappraise conflict: The basic idea behind this is to “think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for everybody.” In other words, if a therapist was in the room with you, what might they say when you and your partner are arguing?
2. Make generous attributions: This love hack involves examining the stories that we make of our partner’s actions. Mr. Finkel gives the example of a partner being late for a date. We could negatively interpret our partner’s actions as a “sign” that they don’t care about date night. Or we can give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t want to be late, and may have gotten caught in traffic.
3. Cultivate a sense of gratitude: As trite as it may sound, seeking out ways to feel grateful to our partner is linked to stronger relationships. Here, again, we have control over the events that we focus on, and over our feelings about those events. Even when times are choppy, our partner is almost certainly doing some things that redound to our benefit. Make an effort to see and appreciate those things.
Develop mental triggers
One of the biggest challenges you’ll face in trying to improve your relationship is simply remembering to take action. That’s where mental triggers come into play. These are essentially ways to cue your brain to remember your new task.
Mr. Finkel says that “if-then contingencies” can be particularly helpful, writing, “For example, if I’m at my laptop when my partner comes home, then I will immediately shut the laptop and greet my partner with a hug and a kiss.” You’re tying together two behaviors: one that you already do daily and a new behavior that you’d like to cue yourself to adopt.
Another option is to simply set reminders for yourself. Brendon Burchard, an author and habit coach, says he puts notifications on his calendar at several points throughout the day to remind himself to be sweet to his wife. You can set up notifications in under a minute and be set with plenty of reminders to do your new behaviors.
Build in structure and accountability
Even with the best intentions, you need some sort of structure in place to help you follow through on taking action. Ms. Hollis has a journaling process in which she writes down 10 goals at the beginning of her day. She writes the goals as if they have already happened.
I tested her recommendation myself and wrote: “I am an exceptional wife. I am sweet to Xander.” Ms. Hollis’s process forced me to start my day with intention. I chose to focus on the word “sweet,” which tapped into our relationship values and narrowed down how I directed my energy for the day. Writing my goal as if it were already true also made me feel a small swell of pride (“Why, yes, I am an exceptional wife!”), which gave me the energy to follow through. Writing it out daily kept my goal top of mind, so I was much less likely to forget it throughout the day.
Another option is to have a weekly “state of our union” meeting with your partner. Carve out a bit of time each week to ask each other:
“What did you appreciate about our relationship this week?”
“How did I make you feel loved this week?”
“What do you need more of next week?”
This conversation can also be an opportunity to celebrate your efforts with each other. Ms. Davenport recommended using the conversation to discuss the positive changes you’re seeing in your relationship.
Just do something
Not feeling particularly motivated to take action? In his book, Mr. Manson argues that we have motivation all wrong. Most people look to feel motivated before taking action. We bemoan our lack of desire, claiming that without that desire, we can’t do anything. Instead, Mr. Manson advocates his “do something” principle: take some sort of action first. You’ll feel good for having done so and will feel inspired to take even more action. In this way, we create our own motivation, instead of relying on it to strike us.
In case you still feel stuck or lazy, Mr. Manson added: “I would actually say it’s impossible to NOT work on your relationship. Your inaction is itself a form of action that affects the relationship. Every relationship is always either getting stronger or weaker, and to do nothing contributes to the weakening of the relationship.”
Learn to love the process
It is vulnerable to admit that we’re not being the best partner to our loved one, or that our relationship isn’t on the strongest footing. It is even vulnerable to try to connect more deeply with our partner or do something kind for them. But the process of reaching for a better version of ourselves and our relationship can be a really beautiful thing. Mr. Manson defines happiness as having a good problem to solve, and I can think of few better problems than devoting your life to having the best relationship possible.
I’m such a “get up and go” type of person in the morning that even that extra minute of cuddle time felt as if it hampered my morning routine. Sometimes I would find myself halfheartedly spooning Xander, waiting until the moment I could get up. Then I would feel crummy about myself for not being more enthusiastic. I came to realize that I may not get the enjoyment out of the contact that Xander does, but I can allow myself to appreciate the impact it has on him. I slowed down and tried to pay attention to the goofy smile he gets and the adoration in his gaze. I let myself feel his appreciation of me. And that made me feel good.
So good, in fact, that it motivated me to continue. I don’t need to enjoy the cuddling as much as he does, but I can enjoy him enjoying it, and that’s one simple way I try to be a better partner.
By Vanessa Marin