There is no one-size-fits-all approach to relationships and what works for your parents, friends or neighbours may not work for you. There is, however, a wealth of research on relationship satisfaction and outcomes that may offer some insight into what you can do to increase your odds of making love last and creating a relationship that is healthy fulfilling and passionate.
Consider the following ingredients to create a relationship that works for you:
Laughter and playfulness.
Research shows that couples who laugh together often are the happiest — even if they fight often, the presence of laughter may help to attenuate the potentially negative impacts of fights. Neuroscientists and psychologists theorize that laughter might be an evolutionary mechanism to soothe anxiety and warn others that a perceived threat is, in fact, harmless. So if you can inject humour and playfulness into your daily routine and find reasons to laugh and lighten up during times of distress, you’ll likely find yourselves feeling more relaxed and connected.
Simple ways to make life more playful include:
- Send funny videos, images, memes or voice notes throughout the day. If you see something that makes you chuckle, share it with your lover.
- Don’t be afraid to laugh when things go awry – in and out of the bedroom. Though laughter and sex may not seem perfectly matched, nervous laughter can be expected in tense situations as it promotes circulation and relaxation, both of which facilitate the body’s sexual response cycle.
- Bring levity to intense conversations and even arguments (when appropriate); if you can laugh at yourself or a situation (e.g. maybe you’re bickering because you’re hangry), you’re more likely to diffuse it and let intense feelings subside.
You both need space to evolve and self-expansion theory suggests that we’re happiest in our relationships when we are given space to grow and embrace new experiences. This might include purposefully spending time apart to reap some of the benefits of distance including:
An increase in passion — absence makes the heart grow fonder and the loins ache with desire. Couples who spend time apart may find that the passion chemicals (those associated with new love) are higher, as novelty and mystery are inherent to the relationship.
More interesting conversations — you have more engaging topics to discuss when you’re together as you’re not privy to every last detail of your partner’s day.
A possible barometer for assessing the relationship: research suggests that thinking about your significant other when you’re not together is a sign of a strong bond with your partner. Those who find it difficult to focus on other matters when thinking about their loved one report stronger feelings of love and connection.
More quality time — if you don’t spend every waking moment together engaging in mundane tasks like running errands, you’ll likely find that you make an effort to be more present and connect more meaningfully when you do plan time together.
Better sex — not only is mystery sexy, but you may be more likely to prioritize sex if it’s not always available to you.
If you want more personal space, start the conversation by asking your partner if they would like more time to themselves and then explain why you’d like to spend more time alone or with friends. “I need space!” likely won’t be as effective as “I love my time with you and I also want to make sure I maintain my relationship with my sister, so I’m going to book an afternoon with her next week.”
Compatibility is something you cultivate — not something you find. As long as you’re both willing to put in a similar amount of effort into becoming compatible, you can make it work. You don’t need to want the same things or share a similar sex drive, but you do need to be willing to look for ways to meet one another’s needs without shame or judgement.
Listen to my podcast on sexual compatibility here.
Perceived fair division of unpaid labour.
Research shows that couples who share household tasks have happier, more harmonious relationships — and more sex. While our attitudes toward unpaid labour and gender roles have shifted significantly, in heterosexual relationships, women still perform a disproportionate share of household and family chores.
Perceived imbalance in division labour is a point of contention, stress and resentment for many couples, but regular check-ins can help to nip this in the bud. Do you feel you’re doing your fair share? Is your partner pulling his/her weight? Have a discussion and see where it takes you. While I don’t suggest that you keep score, many couples (and roommates) find that making a list or using an app to divide tasks can address inaccurate perceptions and reduce resentment in relationships.
Kindness and compassion
Research suggests that simply being kind and thinking compassionately leads to improved health and happier relationships. Kindness is positively correlated with lower stress, greater happiness, less pain, greater energy lower blood pressure and reduced symptoms of depression. When you perform an act of kindness, you shift your focus from yourself to someone else and this can help to ease tension and reduce anxiety.
If you want to inject kindness into your daily routine, consider performing a 60-second favour for your partner every day for the next week: make them a tea, slice some fruit, lay out their clothes, warm up their socks over the heating vent, throw their town in the dryer and greet them after their shower, clean their laptop screen, warm up their car, shine their shoes, throw their socks over the heating vent in the morning, gas up their car, send them a funny GIF — the possibilities are endless! Small favours pack a huge punch in terms of maintaining the connection over the long term.
Arguing with a life partner is inevitable. A wealth of research shows that happy couples fight — some fight often and these smaller fights may help to stave off bigger conflicts. Others acknowledge that fighting helps them to adjust the way they behave toward one another to boost harmony and positive feelings in the relationship. Research suggests that arguments represent one type of discussion that has the potential to enhance relationship satisfaction. By engaging in conflict, you may find that you’re most honest with your partner. You may also relieve relationship tension, assuage frustrations and create a deeper bond by communicating your needs and expectations.
Some strategies to improve the way in which you engage in conflict include:
- Listen actively and attempt to understand your partner’s perspective to create a win-win outcome.
- Look for opportunities to engage in positive interactions even when you disagree (e.g. let your partner know that you love them and want to resolve the issue, be physically affectionate, contemplate before responding).
- Write down your concerns, fears and expectations and share them openly with your partner.
Listen to our podcast on what we (Jess and Brandon) fight about here.
Talk about tough topics like sex and money.
Communicating about difficult and potentially contentious topics can help to reduce tension and this is important, as tension around these issues can lead to divorce. Couples who fight about money weekly, for example, are 30% more likely to split than those who only argue about it a few times per month. And couples who talk openly about sex report greater relationship and sexual satisfaction.
Ongoing conversations are essential to relationship harmony and you can start any difficult conversation today by simply asking your partner “how are you feeling about insert topic here?”. Allow them to respond before chiming in and follow up with “What can I do to make you feel (even) better?”. Questions and offers of support go a long way in all types of relationships – from the boardroom to the bedroom.
Physical affection is important in most relationships, because it’s one way we express love, desire and commitment. In Canada, we tend to reserve most forms physical touch for those we love and many of us are touch-deprived. A study of 509 adults found that those who lack affection (and crave more physical affection) experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of loneliness, depression, relationship satisfaction and stress.
If you want more physical affection in your relationship, start with your own behaviour. The next time you’re in the car, on the couch or even at the dinner table, reach out and take your partner’s hand to massage and caress it for 90 seconds. When you kiss them goodbye in the morning, slip them some tongue for 10 seconds. When you walk in the door, stop what you’re doing and give them a long, warm hug. Talk to your partner about their desires and boundaries to ensure they’re on board and rest assured that if you make physical affection a priority, it’s likely that they’ll follow suit.
To learn more about mindful physical touch, check out our Mindful Sex video series here. It’s all about breathing, presence, connection and intimacy – not just sex.