5 Things You Can Do to Protect and Strengthen Your Relationship
By: Sophie Schwartz
Navigating relationships is hard. There will always be new obstacles to overcome, new conflicts to resolve, or new feelings to understand. We all remember the excitement and intensity that comes with being in a new relationship, and we strive to keep those feelings alive for as long as possible. But what happens when the honeymoon phase ends? It is well established that relationship satisfaction – how happy you are in your relationship – tends to decline over the course of relationships. This fact can be really disheartening, especially for individuals who are trying desperately to maintain happiness, closeness, and intimacy with their partners but don’t know why the spark has gone out and don’t know how to get it back. Research has shown that there are many behaviors and activities that couples can use to help maintain intimacy and happiness in their relationships. Relationship Maintenance Behaviors (RMBs) are these activities. They are intended to enhance the relationship and/or keep the relationship moving forward. Below are five relationship maintenance behaviors that any couple can use to help strengthen their relationship, reignite the spark that has been lost, and maintain happiness and intimacy long-term.
#1 Spend Quality Time Together
It goes without saying that spending time together promotes closeness. In romantic relationships both shared relationship activities and joint leisure activities, have been shown to improve relationship functioning and happiness in all stages and types of relationships – dating, cohabiting, long-distance, marriage, and so on. Any activity that partners can do together constitutes relationship activities: going to see a movie, taking art or cooking classes, going for a hike, or taking a trip.
Evidence from various studies tells us that exciting and novel activities – rather than pleasant, relaxing, or routine activities – are more likely to improve relationship quality and facilitate closeness between partners. Importantly, the best and most fulfilling activities, in terms of relationship satisfaction and overall happiness, are those which both partners enjoy and are motivated to participate in. Any activity can be beneficial to any couple, but only if both partners are excited to do it. The quality of the time you spend together – more than the amount of time and the type of activity – will be what determines whether the shared activity is beneficial for your relationship or not.
#2 Maintain Relationship Rituals
Relationship rituals are exchanges between partners that are planned, occur regularly, and have symbolic meaning. There is a distinct difference between a ritual and a routine in that routines are things that simply need to be done like folding the laundry or grocery shopping. Grocery shopping can be a ritual, but only if the couple places significant meaning on that activity.
Research shows that having and maintaining relationship rituals can increase levels of commitment in a relationship. Essentially, showing commitment to the ritual indicates to your partner that you are committed to them. Couples who continually engage in their chosen ritual(s) tend to show higher levels of relationship satisfaction and experience more positive emotions all around. One common relationship ritual is weekly or regular date nights, but any kind of activity can serve the purpose of a ritual as long as both you and your partner believe the act to be meaningful and symbolically powerful in the context of your relationship together.
#3 Mitigate Potential Threats
Sometimes individuals find themselves being attracted to people other than their partner. Alternative others, potential others, and potential alternatives all refer to the individuals that could potentially pose a threat to your relationship – people that represent alternatives to your current relationship. In a world full of potential alternatives, how do you maintain commitment and lower the risk of infidelity?
One option is to derogate, or downplay the attractiveness of, potential alternatives. This cognitive technique has been shown to help individuals who are highly motivated to stay committed to their partners. The downside is that one cannot be forced to ignore potential alternatives. Forcing your partner to ignore potential others may elicit the opposite of the intended effect and push your partner further towards the forbidden fruit.
Another option is to avoid suggestive or risky situations or people. A few simple examples of this could be getting separate rooms when traveling with a co-worker, not eating lunch with the same acquaintance every day, or limiting your interaction with potential others online. The point of avoidance is to set boundaries, recognize when your relationship with a potential alternative is posing a threat to your current relationship, and remove yourself from situations that may invoke intimate feelings with alternative others. It will benefit you and your relationship to save your emotional energy and cognitive resources for your partner or for friends who are clearly not potential romantic partners.
Allowing yourself to forgive someone who has hurt you is not an easy task. Whether it be lesser offenses or full-blown cheating, forgiveness takes a lot of patience, time, and understanding. Forgiveness can be characterized by a desire to forgo condemnation or revenge even when these feelings seem justified. Despite the difficulties of forgiving a partner who has broken your trust or hurt you in some other way, forgiveness has been shown to facilitate many positive relationship outcomes such as increased commitment, decreased likelihood of break-ups, increased constructive communication, and increased relationship satisfaction. Some even suggest that forgiveness is foundational to the healing process.
Forgiveness allows for healing in the victim of the offense and encourages self-reflection and accountability in the offender. In many cases, forgiveness can be a beacon of hope for couples teetering on the edge of collapse after trust has been broken or pain has been caused; however, there are circumstances that do not warrant forgiveness. When the offense is repeated or particularly extreme, forgiving the offender may only make things worse. The trick is to know what your personal limits are – when is forgiveness appropriate, and when have your partner’s actions surpassed what you can tolerate?
#5 Assess and Re-Assess the Relationship
“So… what are we?” Many people have experienced first-hand what it is like to ask or be asked this question by a significant other. Typically, we think of these ‘state of the relationship’ conversations as occurring at the start of a new relationship to define “what we are to each other.” Conversations like these provide couples with clarification on individual expectations going into a new relationship, and that is great. Once the state of the relationship is declared, however, many couples fail to revisit these conversations until the time comes to either take the next step or take a step back.
The ‘state of the relationship’ conversation, is not only a mechanism to define the relationship at the beginning but also to express partners’ wants, needs, commitment levels, and goals throughout the relationship. While these conversations may seem awkward, taboo, scary, or conflict provoking, relationship talk has been widely proven to increase relationship satisfaction and protect against break-ups. Regularly talking about and building your relationship together acts a protective factor against possible infidelity, and can facilitate intimacy through the disclosure of sensitive topics. By regularly re-evaluating and keeping up with each other’s wants, needs, commitment levels, and desires, couples can promote intimacy and strengthen the relationship as a whole.
Be Flexible. Like everything else in life relationships will change, and couples may have to change along with them; but change doesn’t have to be negative. Refusing to acknowledge that your relationship needs some attention will only make things worse. Recognize that change is inevitable and that you have the power to navigate the waters of change with positivity and resilience.
Spending quality time together, maintaining relationship rituals, mitigating potential threats, forgiving, and regularly re-assessing your relationship are five things that any couple can do to help strengthen and reinforce their relationship, but this list is far from exhaustive. There are tons of other ways to strengthen and protect relationships: practicing gratitude, having a supportive social network, or even having sex! Spend the time looking for the relationship maintenance behaviors that work best for your relationship.
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