Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Three Things You Can do to Improve Your Relationship

Be a super couple! (I know... cheesy.)
After my post on Five Relationship Destroying Behaviors to Stop Right Now, I received two kinds of responses. The first was, “Easier said than done.” I agree with that, and I may address that later. The other kind of response was, “Great, now tell us what we can do to improve our relationships.” I think that's a great idea, so here you go. Below is a list of three things that I have seen make significant changes in the relationships that I have worked with in couple's therapy. (I was going to list five things to improve relationships for the sake of symmetry, but I decided to go with three instead because I wanted this list to be
shorter and more manageable.) Try them out, and see if you don't agree with me. 

1. Go on a date with your partner once a week.

This is probably the single best piece of advice I can give. sounds pretty simple, but many people who have been in relationships for a long time stop dating. It is really amazing how much of a change just going on a date once a week can make in a couple's life. If you want to improve your relationship, establish a weekly “Date Night.”

The reason that date night works is simple: It strengthens what we call the "marital friendship.” Basically, if you don't like the person you partnered with, you are unlikely to have a happy relationship. Remembering how to like them is an important part of improving your relationship.

Because couples often forget how to date, I've come up with “Rules for Date Night.” Here they are:

  1. Date night is a special occasion, planned in advance. It isn't “Hey honey, let's go out tonight.” It's something you set in your calendar. It doesn't have to be a long date. If your schedule doesn't allow, it doesn't even have to be at night. It does have to be planned in advance. (Reason for this rule: The anticipation that date night is going to happen is just as useful in improving your relationship as the actual date itself.)
  2. Date night is an occasion to do something different. It does not have to be something fancy or elaborate, but it has to be something somewhat different. Try a new restaurant. Cook a new recipe together. Watch a movie that isn't something you would “typically” watch. Take a class. Play miniature golf or drive a go-cart. Do something that is out of the ordinary. (Reason for this rule: You want to generate dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is produced in response to novelty.)
  3. Date night conversations are limited to topics that are not serious. This is not the time to iron out the details of your mortgage refinance, or to talk about your disappointments in life. Do that on another occasion. (Reason: Couples fall into patterns of dialogue, and this rule will make sure that you spend the time feeling positive emotions, and not arguing or stressing.)

Perhaps the most common objection I hear to date night is, “But my partner I already do that! We go on dates all the time.” Great! Move on to suggestion #2. But before you do, ask yourself if you follow those three rules. Do you plan it in advance, set aside the time to do something relatively novel, and limit conversations to topics that are enjoyable? If you do not, then you are not dating: You are hanging out with your partner. Hanging out is great, but it's not dating


2. Share the best part of your day.

Research shows that couples who share the best parts of their day experience positive affect in their relationship. It sound simple, but it has a double benefit. One, it helps you stay connected to your partner's life. And two, it associates your partner with positive memories.

So here's what I recommend: Once a day, in the evening, take your partners hand. Look at them and say, “What was the best part of your day?” Then you do the same. That's it--pretty simple. So do it for a week and see what happens. 

3. Tell your partner something you appreciate about them—and tell them regularly.

As we get more comfortable in relationships, we start to take things for granted. We get accustomed to the things that once made us happy. The fancy term for this is “hedonic adaptation.”

As a result, we stop telling our partners how important they are to us, or how they make us feel, or what we appreciate about them. The problem is that the little moments of reflection and appreciation are not incidental to relationships: They are essential for the continuation of our love for our partners.

So make it a point to tell you partner what you appreciate about them. I call this “cultivating an environment of appreciation.” (That's not a term I invented, but I cannot remember where I learned it. Let me know if you know the source.) When I ask my clients to do this, they sometimes tell me that they already do this. But when I ask for details, it turns out that they do not. They may say “thank you” if their partner does the dishes, or something like that, but they do not make a routine practice of telling their partner their appreciation.

Try to make it a habit to tell your partner something you appreciate about them several times a week, or even every single day. And, I encourage you to prepare for this. Here is a list of positive traits. Go through the list and check off all the ones that apply to your partner. Then, make it a point over the next few weeks to tell your partner each one, over time. You can even make this a game, in which you try and suit the exact trait to a specific event that occurs. For example, you might notice your partner driving your kids to a sporting event, and say, “I appreciate all the work you do to parent.” Or, you might notice your partner in a new shirt, and say, “I am grateful to have such a handsome husband.”



A note on usage: In this post, and from this point on, I will be using “they/them” as third-person singular pronouns. I am aware that traditional English grammar requires “he or she” and “him or her” instead. I am choosing to break this rule of grammar in respect for individuals whose gender may not be described by those pronouns. I'm including this note for my trans* and trans* friendly friends and clients, but mostly for my mother, who is a retired professor of English. Yes, Mom, I listened to you, and you raised me to know the rules. You also raised me to advocate for tolerance, so this is what I'm doing. Messrs. Strunk and White will just have to forgive me.  


  1. Thank you for sharing these useful tips!! It's an amazing post!!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you found it useful!

  3. When my partner and I are feeling disconnected from each other, one of the tools we use is telling each other everything we find amazing about each other. It never fails.