Relationships require work. And if you want to be a better partner, well, you have to try to be a better partner. It’s as simple as that. Because when you commit to trying, you commit to thinking about what kind of partner you want to become and where you need to improve. It could be communicating a little bit better, making more of an effort to connect every day, or voicing more appreciation for your wife. Maybe it’s having a better awareness of the bad habits you have when arguing so conversations don’t spin out of control so easily. Or realizing that you need to have more serious conversations about household equity. Every one of us has things we can work on. By performing a bit of self-interrogation, truly asking ourselves What could I do a little bit better?, and focusing on some small steps to make good relationships even better. To help, we asked a variety of experts — psychologists, life coaches, relationship counsellors, and more — for a few ways we could all be better partners going forward. With their input, here are 25 small things to do.
1. Schedule time to connect every day
Connection is crucial to every relationship but so often it can fall to the wayside. Make it a point to try to check in, show affection, and express love every day. Yes, even if you’re both extremely busy. “This can be as simple as a quality hug each morning before you go off into your individual days,” says Zoe Kors, an in-house sex and intimacy coach with the app Coral. “Look each other in the eye, express one thing you are grateful for or appreciate about each other. And then hug for three slow breaths.”
2. Let your spouse feel your presence
“Being available might be one of the more difficult things to do with the demands from work, home obligations, personal needs and responsibilities,” says Dr. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, a licensed mental health clinician, author, and motivational speaker. “However, making your spouse feel that you are present in the moment will help taking away a lot of irritation, miscommunication, and other tiring aspects that your spouse experienced.” A good start? When your partner is talking about something personal, give them your full attention. Put your phone (or tablet or laptop) down. Make eye contact. Nod. Affirm. Reciprocate. Be there fully. “Sometimes,” per Dr. Holland-Kornegay, “looking at your partner with loving eyes and a smile on the lips can be enough.”
3. Focus on your hellos and goodbyes
Ask yourself: Do I breeze in and out, or do I take a moment to kiss them and tell them that I love them? When I’m coming home — or when my work from home day finishes — do I take a few minutes to ask them about their day and really listen? Think about this and make shifts where necessary. After all, small course corrections can lead to meaningful changes. “We can take our partners for granted,” says Nick Bognar, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “But these little connections can make a world of difference”
4. Validate more often
We all want validation from the people we love — that is, someone who says, I hear you and I understand. “Acknowledge and accept your partner’s feelings, beliefs, and thoughts,” says Marisa T Cohen, PhD, a relationship scientist and coach. “Even if you don’t see eye-to-eye it is important that you have open and honest conversations with your partner and allow him/her/them to open up and share.”
5. Practice responding rather than reacting
These days we’re all pretty high-strung, dealing with a vast amount of stressors from all areas of life. When amped up, it’s easier to fall into bad habits and, say, become defensive when having discussions with your partner. A good tactic: “Take a deep breath and give yourself a beat to answer back when you’re feeling activated,” says therapist, author, and speaker Dr. Lauren Cook. “This will help you avoid saying something you regret.”
6. Try the compliment sandwich
Knowing how to argue well — that is, to discuss disagreements, criticisms, or frustrations in healthy way — is a defining characteristic of good relationships. One tactic that more couples should use more often, per Conscious Relationship Coach Teresa Lodato is the compliment sandwich (just hold the baloney). “Whenever you give criticism, compliment something positive about your partner, provide a brief critique, and then provide another compliment.” This softens the blow and makes it obvious that you are noticing the good things, not just the bad.
7. Vow to be a better listener
That is, when your partner is talking, do your best to to really, truly hear and understand them. “Listen to what they are saying, and to what they aren’t saying to find the meaning behind their words,” says Lynell Ross, Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Behavior Change Specialist, and Certified Life and Relationship Coach “Sometimes, we don’t need our partner to fix things or give advice, we just need to know they understand and care.”
8. Prioritize your mental health
There is perhaps nothing more important than this. Take proactive steps to be there for yourself and, as they say, put on your own oxygen mask first. “Building self-awareness and learning skills about emotion regulation, self-talk, and coping strategies can directly impact how you show up with your partner,” says Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness. “Consider working with a psychotherapist to help support you in this journey.”
9. Talk about sex more
Want to improve your sex life? Talk about sex more. “The best way to keep the bad sex at a minimum is if you tell your partner about your sexual needs and desires, what you love in bed, and what you don’t like,” says sex and relationship coach Azaria Menezes. “Healthy communication around your needs and desires can take a lot of guessing out of the game, give you the pleasure you’re really desiring, and create more intimacy between you and your partner.”
10. Make household equity a priority
The vast majority of men do not recognize the hidden labor that women take on their households — often little, crucial tasks that add up to a massive burden. It’s important to make this a priority and even the load. “Ask your partner about the household equity, and then listen to their answer,” suggests Bognar. “Look for opportunities to pitch in, and don’t be afraid to do even more than your share. As men, we focus a lot on fairness because our position in the world often means we are spared unfairness.”
11. Know your attachment style — and take ownership of it
This is one of the most important steps a couple can take, per Jeremy McAllister, Licensed Professional Counsellor and owner of Lifekey Counseling. “Whether you’re on the (more commonly male) avoidant side — just wanting a peaceful life, thinking everyone should take care of their own needs, their own emotions — or on the anxious side and receiving all these reflections from the world that blame you for your emotions, that say you need too much or you are too much — know that neither side is wrong,” he says. “Each side just brings a different set of tools to meet and manage emotions in self and other. One side struggles to step out of the emotion while the other struggles to access it. And neither side knows how to actually be with it.” Understanding where you and your partner each fit and finding ways to respond with empathy to those triggers in them that trigger you, he adds, is crucial.
12. Practice taking the lead
“If you’re the follower, practice being the initiator at least once a week,” advises Dr. Cook. “Whether that includes making dinner, inviting intimacy, or giving a phone call, be the one that gives rather than receives.”
13. Be intentional about affirming your partner more.
Compliments are great. But this extends beyond that, to the deeper more intentional affirmations specific to your partner, says Gina Handley Schmitt a Psychotherapist, Professor, Author, and Speaker. She offers an example “When I watch how you consistently reach out with compassion to the people in your world, I am in awe. Thank you for being such a warm human being and for challenging me to be better in this area, as well.” This immediately tells are partner that you’re noticing and appreciating what they do. Who wouldn’t want to hear something this specific and this warm more often?
14. Do what you said you would do
And more so: stop doing the things you shouldn’t do. “Making an effort to be reliable strengthens any relationship and keeping promises is one of them,” says April Machado, founder of AskApril. “Instead of constantly apologizing for forgetting to buy pet food, make it a habit to list down the things you need to buy at the store. Show progress and be consistent.”
15. Be empathetic when your partner is experiencing distress
That is: Don’t look for solutions or play devil’s advocate. Try to see things from their point of view. Resist the the urge to say such invalidating phrases as ‘It’s not a big deal.’ “Lead with empathy and learn how your partner needs to be supported when they are upset,” says relationship expert Cheryl Muir. “Does she need space, or does she crave a hug and a listening ear? Learn what this is for your partner, and it will help her to feel emotionally safe with you.”
16. Aim for more eye contact
The simple act of looking straight into your partner’s eyes can build intimacy and strengthen communication. “Taking the time to look each other in the eye and really see one another while talking is an easy way to ensure your partner knows you not only hear them but are present with them and really ‘see’ them,” says marriage and relationship coach Eric Hunt.
17. Touch more
In non-sexual ways. “Hug, hold hands, nuzzle,” suggests Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine “Being physically and affectionately connected without it having to be sex boosts your romantic and affectionate connection.”
18. Learn your partner’s love language
And communicate with them that way, suggests Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness. “Do they feel most cared for through acts of service? Go out of your way to do the dishes, clean the house, and get dinner made. If quality time is their jam, schedule a fun activity together alone — and make sure the kids are taken care of.”
19. Be assertive
In a healthy way, that is. “This is about ensuring that you are being open and honest with your partner, fostering deeper familiarity and intimacy in your relationship, even as you address difficult issues that may arise,” says Handley-Schmitt. As an example, she suggests saying something like ‘I want you to know that I adore you, and I want to be closer to you in the new year. With all that we have both been juggling lately, I have felt a bit disconnected, and I would like to make a commitment with you to bridge that gap and make our relationship the priority going forward.’
20. Go big on gratitude
Gratitude is a powerful ally. It molds your perspective, helping you realize the important things in life. Discussing gratitude with your partner can also pay serious dividends. “2020 taught us — brutally — not to take even the smallest pleasures for granted,” says Briony Leo, certified Psychologist & Head of Coaching at HelloRelish. “Moving into 2021, let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned this year. Train your mind to focus on what you have to be grateful for, and forget about the rest. And to take it one step further, vocalize your observations to your partner. Sprinkling in sentences like: ‘Taking that lunchtime walk with you was the highlight of my day,’ or ‘I am so grateful for the fact that you’re an amazing cook’ are simple, easy ways to transform ordinary moments into moments that spark joy.”
21. Invest in more quality time
Just because we have spent more time physically together due to quarantine, doesn’t mean that we have spent more quality time together, notes Dr. Anjani Amladi, MD, a Board Certified Adult Psychiatrist. “Spending time near each other watching TV, scrolling through our phones, or checking e-mails does not count as quality time because we are not connecting in a purposeful or meaningful way,” she says. “Taking a break from electronics provides the opportunity for eye contact and conversation, a real opportunity to check in with each other. Spending time in each other’s presence helps to feel seen, heard, and loved.”
22. Understand yourself better
“When you know and understand yourself and your own issues, when you take the time for personal growth, then you will be less likely to be immature and take your hurts or problems out on your spouse,” says Ross. “Be able to speak up for what you need without being defensive. When you are your best self, you are better able to give to your partner.”
23. Find your own happiness
“One of the best ways to be a better partner is to be a better you,” says Certified Life Purpose Coach and Self-awareness expert Shelley Meche’tte. “Discovering our own happiness and purpose, puts us in a better position to be more available for the ones we love. Because no one is responsible for our happiness, when we take time to uncover what makes us authentically happy, it shines into other areas of our lives — including our intimate relationships.”
24. Set goals together
Having shared goals, no matter how big or small, lets you work towards something together “Maybe you’ve been saving up for some new furniture or a vacation or you’re wanting to commit to having ‘date night’ on a regular basis,” says Litner. “Demonstrate that these goals are important to youby making strides towards working towards them whether it be setting savings aside for the new purchase or researching date night activities.
25. Talk about the relationship you want to have
Speaking of goals: What kind of relationship do you want to have? Many people never talk with their partner about the kind of relationship they want to have, says Gabrielle Usatynski, a Licensed Professional Counselor and relationship expert. “Problems arise when their partner doesn’t act the way they expect them to, when really the couple never even talked about their expectations for the relationship.”
Talking about this upfront, she says, can help partners get on the same page about how they should treat each other. “Think about what kinds of principles you think your relationship should be based on,” she suggests. “Should you base your relationship on things like empathy, sensitivity and fostering each other’s well-being? What comes first? Your relationship or something else?” When couples agree to these things, Usatynski notes, they avoid a lot of heartache and are more likely to have the kind of communication, intimacy and connection they are looking for. And isn’t that what we all want?
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