You visit your gyno for your annual exam, eat healthy to avoid disease, and exercise to keep your body strong, but what do you do to nurture your relationship on a regular basis? Just a guess: not a whole lot. That’s a huge shame, because good relationship advice—particularly when it comes from pros schooled in the field of psychology—can take any solid-gold love to diamond-level strong.
“Most of us operate in crisis mode for our relationship, only giving it sincere attention when there’s a problem that needs fixing,” says Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing near Philadelphia. “But a relationship is like a garden: Even when it’s doing well, weeds can grow and overtake it.”
“A relationship is like a garden: Even when it’s doing well, weeds can grow and overtake it.”
Which is why the uptick in “happy couples counseling”—seeing an expert long before the thought of Splitsville ever comes up—deserves applause. The proactive approach, which, btw, is a prereq for marriage within the Catholic faith, will help you smooth over even the tiniest (or grandest) of issues—and simply amplify the love you feel for each other on a daily basis.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 pieces of relationship advice, brought to you by the sagest, realest relationship therapists out there…
1. Always assume the best.
Whether or not you’re an optimist, chances are, you find something personal in your S.O.’s actions when they disappoint you. It’s natural because, well, relationships are personal. But 9 out of 10 times (if not all 10), your person has no intention of upsetting you.
“Especially when we’re already in an irritated state, we have a hair trigger for taking things the wrong way and assuming the worst,” says Gillihan. (And yet when our partner feels personally offended or attacked by something you do, you’re probably annoyed that they don’t just let you off the hook.)
But keep in mind that “so many of our reactions are based on how we feel about
ourselves, versus how someone else feels about us,” as Gillihan explains. So try this: In the morning, tell yourself, Today, I’m going to choose the most benign interpretation for whatever comes my way.
“This mentality gives you the freedom to get over yourself”—and can set an example for your significant other to do the same, he says. The result? You both can focus on all the good—and bounce back fast from any moments of accidental “bad.”
2. Notice projections.
Speaking of interpretations, one thing that can mess them up is a psychology term known as projection.
Projection is, in short, when you transfer your own feelings about yourself or a situation onto someone else. While it’s typically a subconscious habit, projecting leads you to assume that your partner feels a certain way when, in reality, they don’t.
For example, if you’ve been cheated on in the past and have trust issues because of it (I mean, fair), you might interpret your partner’s “You’re acting weird” comment as an accusation that you’re being disloyal. When in truth, they’re just wondering why you’ve been less talkative for the past two days.
Whenever you can, try to pause and see a conversation or situation for what it really is, notice your own insecurities and assumptions (ask yourself: Do I know X to be true?), and do your best to let go of the idea that you know what your S.O. is feeling, says Gillihan. You’ll never truly know unless you ask them.
3. Stop should-ing on each other.
Should is perhaps the worst word in the English language, at least where relationships are concerned. “It creates a sense of injustice—that something ought to be different from how it is,” says Gillihan. But most of the time, what follows the verb is a personal wish or preference, not an actual truth.
If you believe at all in fate, it helps to just trust that whatever your partner did or didn’t do happened because that’s how the universe was aligned (for some reason beyond anyone’s knowledge). If you don’t, that’s totally fine—but reframing your mindset can help you escape any sense of bitterness or indignation. So express what you want as a desire: “I wish you could come home earlier so we could spend more time together,” or “I ’d love it if you helped more with the dog.”
Anyone can debate a “should,” notes Gillihan, “but who can argue with a wish?” Even if they can’t make it happen, they won’t feel as if they’re doing something wrong right off the bat.
4. Shush up and listen.
You think you listen to your other half, but…do you?
Listening is a verb, not just a passive “you’re talking and I’m not” process. It requires silencing your own thoughts and feelings so you can truly tune in to someone else’s.
“Everyone wants to feel heard, but a lot of couples don’t feel heard as time goes on, and that creates a lot of problems,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a relationship psychotherapist in NYC. “Of course, it’s important to express yourself, but you first have to step back and listen.”
Sussman’s suggestion? After your partner tells you how they feel, repeat back to them what you understand them to be saying. Then say, “Do you feel like I heard you now? Do you feel understood?” If they say no, ask them to please help you get a better grasp on what they’re saying.
And remember this: Even if you don’t agree with your partner, you want to validate their feelings. You are a totally different person with different experiences and perceptions, so you won’t always see eye-to-eye—but if you want your relationship to grow, you should always, always let them know that they aren’t wrong for feeling the way they do.
5. Look for opportunities for sincere thank you’s.
Research shows gratitude is the secret to a happy life—and it’s a necessary ingredient for a happy ‘ship, too.
Think about it: Relationships take work, and like at the office, not being acknowledged for putting in time and effort can make you feel unappreciated and even resentful.
So take notice of moments when your partner does something even remotely selfless and kind for you, and thank them for it. Acknowledge things that they wouldn’t expect you to point out, like picking up your favorite bottle of wine on their way home or making quinoa instead of their preferred rice because you’re cutting back on refined carbs.
“Saying thank you can go a very long way, and it’s a reciprocal effect,” says Gillihan. Meaning: Make an effort to show more gratitude toward bae and they will likely do the same toward you, amping the loving feeling.
6. Partner up when life gets crazy.
“When we’re overwhelmed, we often bring so little to our relationship,” says Sussman. Read: You flake on seeing the new Marvel movie with your partner on Sunday so you can get some work done, or you hardly even kiss them before bed because you’re so exhausted.
“The right equation is to be your best and most loving self at home, so the strength of your bond gives you strength to handle everything else.” Preach!
“Always ask yourself if you’re putting as much into your relationship as you are into your career, exercise goals, friendships…”
When you know work is about to heat up, tell your S.O., “I’m about to go through a really busy time, and I’m nervous I won’t be able to put the energy into our relationship that we both expect. What else can I do to help us this month?” The solution may be to cut back on social engagements or to schedule breakfasts together instead of dinners you know you’ll end up missing.
“Always ask yourself if you’re putting as much into your relationship as you are into your career, exercise goals, friendships,” Sussman adds. “Then make shifts as necessary.”
7. Create a shared goals calendar.
You have goals, your partner has goals—but what about ones you can pursue as a couple? It’s important to envision achieving or doing something as a unit to keep your bond superstrong, says WH advisor “Dr. Chloe” Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in NYC.
“Create a calendar for financial, travel, or hobby goals,” she says. (Like: Visit Japan, learn salsa.) “This helps you see yourselves together in the future, encourages discussion around lifestyle choices, and reminds you to support one another with accountability and by working off each other’s momentum.”
Plus, planning a future beyond the big stuff (ahem, babies and shiny new houses) can be just plain fun—and lift you out of the boring day-to-day.
8. Prioritize intimacy.
I’m not talking about sex here, though that is incredibly important in a relationship, too. I mean the kind of intimacy that comes from physical touch, genuine eye contact, mutual smiling, etc.—all the tiny moments that make your heart swell.
“These are the things that remind your partner that you’re in this together, that you choose them and are happy you did,” Sussman says.
Touch your S.O. when they’re making coffee (a quick hug around the waist does the trick…just be careful not to make them spill), look at them in the eyes when they tell you about their day, take showers together, sleep naked, snuggle…you know, the PG stuff that makes the day-to-day that much more special.
“If you notice that’s declining, it could be the time to take a moment and talk to yourself about why—is it on your end, theirs, or both?” Sussman notes. If increasing your own initiation of this type of intimacy doesn’t lead to them doing the same, you may want to consider seeing a couples therapist, who can help you both figure out underlying issues.
9. Proactively check in.
Repeat after me: No matter how well your person knows you, they will never know exactly what’s going on inside your head at all times. So don’t expect them to…ever. You’ll save yourself a lot of drama by voicing your thoughts once you’ve had a chance to process and collect them, Dr. Chloe notes. (And I co-sign.)
That said, you probably harbor a lot of thoughts that you may never voice for one reason or another—and your partner could be doing the same. Perhaps they don’t feel like you’d receive them well, or that their voicing concern wouldn’t lead to beneficial change, anyway, so they suck it up and move on.
While that’s not a huge deal on an occasional basis for minor things (like, them being annoyed that you can never decide what you want for dinner), holding things in regularly won’t end well.
So do your part to get your S.O. to open up by checking in from time to time. In a casual, nonconfrontational way (perhaps when you’re in the car), ask them, “How are you feeling about us these days? Is there anything I could be doing more or less of to support you?”
Oftentimes, just your taking a minute to ask is enough to make them feel the love.
10. Take time to see them.
The security of a long-term relationship (and marriage, obviously) is freaking fabulous. But a common price for that is how “used to” your partner you become. “There comes a point when we’re looking at a projection or memory of the person, not who they are in 3-D at that moment,” says Gillihan. “That leads you to make assumptions about what they need based on their past—not their present.”
And, of course, people (yourself included) evolve as time goes on, and when you’re with someone for the long haul, it’s on you to recognize how. So whenever you can—on your next date night, while they’re making the coffee, after they get back from a run—take a second to stop and really see your partner with fresh eyes.
Think of three kind or impressive things they did recently, and feel the feels for them. Then instead of “I love you,” try saying, “I see you.” Their reaction could be pretty stunning.