Love and commitment aren’t always enough to keep partnerships strong. It’s easy to fall into a routine where the kids, work, and running the household start to eat away at the time and energy it takes to make your partner, and your relationship, your priority. When making each other feel loved and appreciated slips down the to-do list, even relationships that were once solid and loving can start to wither and deteriorate.
“Over time, someone who was once your beloved is now relegated to other roles, such as caretaker and worker supporting the household,” says Michael Mongno, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City. “A successful long-term relationship comes down to how you are attending to your partner, which is a very active process.”
Relationships take maintenance. But showing that you have some awareness of your partner’s patterns, how they want to be shown love, and how they communicate, for example, are skills you can sharpen. And there are many simple ways to solidify your union that are easy, free and backed by scientific research — from the obvious (make decisions with your partner top of mind) to the more surprising (get in the habit of saying “us” and “we” for a stronger relationship).
Here, according to roughly a decade of studies in relationship science, are 14 ways to make your relationship happier and more resilient.
1. Face Problems With Optimism
It’s a necessity for committed couples to problem-solve together, but optimism is an important factor in keeping the process from damaging relationships, wrote the authors of a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2022. Couples with an optimistic outlook were more likely to resolve the problems they discussed and less likely to experience relationship conflict on days they problem-solved together than participants who scored low in optimism. Less optimistic couples reported significantly lower relationship quality on days they discussed problems, whereas optimistic partners weren’t any less satisfied with their relationships even on days they discussed problems.
Although optimism often is thought of as a personality trait, some research suggests that people can become more optimistic if they try; one study found that even a short-term program in mindfulness meditation showed changes in the brain, patterns of left brain activity associated with positive affect.
2. Make Decisions With Your Partner Top of Mind
People who make proportionately more “partner-satisfying” decisions than selfish ones appear to have happier relationships, according to research published in the journal Personal Relationships in 2020. Study participants who made decisions in accordance with their partner’s wishes also felt better about themselves and closer to their partners than people who made partner-satisfying decisions less often.
The researchers pointed out that the decisions having the most benefit were “prosocial.” For example, doing the dishes rather than leaving them for your partner or coming home to help prepare dinner rather than going out with friends for a beer. The point, they wrote, is not for people to always place the needs of others over their own, but rather, that giving up a selfish desire to do something for someone else, such as volunteering or spending money on others rather than on yourself, had a positive effect on relationships.
3. Have And Show Empathy
It’s important to show empathy when a partner is feeling bad, but even more important, research suggests, is to have empathy about their positive emotions as well. Showing enthusiasm when your partner is excited about something or celebrating their successes with them helps promote a sense of security in the relationship, wrote the authors of the study published in 2017.
“Support during conflict is important, but it also matters how you respond when good things happen,” says Justin Lavner, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia.
For example, if your partner gets a promotion, do you share their joy, or express concern they’ll have to work more hours and won’t be able to do as much around the house?
“Those things are important to figure out, but not at that moment,” Lavner says. “Make sure to celebrate the good things.”
4. Make Each Other Feel Desired
More than a third of couples in long-term relationships were able to keep their sex lives humming, even after a decade or two together, according to a 2016 Chapman University study of more than 35,000 heterosexual couples. One of the authors noted in a press release, however, that those couples who maintained satisfactory sex lives made an effort to keep bedroom activities from becoming routine. In addition to foreplay and switching things up (with role playing, new toys or acting out fantasies), couples who had happy sex lives made an effort to set the mood and make each other feel loved, according to the study, published in The Journal of Sex Research.
The authors cited examples such as giving a partner a massage, sending a sexy text during the day or taking a shower together as ways to keep intimacy alive that aren’t tied directly to bedroom “performance,” which can make couples feel pressured.
“Just talking about the ways that make you feel desired and what would make your partner feel desired can foster better understanding and intimacy between partners,” Lavner adds. “But it’s helpful if it comes more from a place of sharing and wanting to understand the other, and less about ‘Here’s what I want you to do to satisfy me sexually.’”
It’s also helpful to keep conversations positive, pointing out things that work well or enhance your sex life rather than ways your partner is falling short, he says.
5. Stay Present During Sex
Mindfulness, and in particular, sexual mindfulness, may be important skills that support new parents’ mental health and satisfaction with their sex lives and in their relationships, wrote the authors of a 2022 study of 169 married heterosexual couples transitioning to parenthood published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Mindful nonjudgment was an important aspect in that effect, says Lavner: “That means paying attention to your partner in the moment and not getting distracted by evaluating yourself or your partner. Keep your focus in the moment.”
6. Learn How Your Partner Wants To Be Loved
Understanding — and learning how to speak — what love language your partner prefers is crucial, says Mongno', speaking of Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages”: Words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and physical touch.
What it boils down to is some people show love and receive love in different ways. For one person it’s doing things for their loved one; for others, it’s receiving validation or words of praise.
“It’s really important to know your partner’s love language,” says Mongno', who always recommends his clients familiarize themselves with the love language concept. “You might be thinking you’re loving your partner as much as you can, but if how you show love doesn't resonate with them, it’s like you’re speaking a foreign language.” Having that awareness can help you show love in ways more likely to be recognized and appreciated by your partner.
7. Go To Bed At The Same Time
We get it. For some folks, this just isn’t possible. But another study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2021 found that couples expressed increased feelings of intimacy when they went to bed at the same time, even when they only talked or watched TV together. Although technology use is often thought to have a negative effect on relationships, researchers found that shared technology use before bed may have a positive impact on individual and relational well-being.
“Spending time together before bed is another domain that provides the opportunity for conversations, with fewer distractions and also for physical intimacy, too,” Lavner says. “Bedtime is often one of the only times for parents and busy couples to connect one-on-one.”
8. Address Ambivalence ASAP
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2022 concluded that people who have mixed feelings about their partners were less satisfied and more likely to consider divorce than their less ambivalent counterparts. If couples are feeling ambivalent and aren’t sure what to do about it, therapy can be helpful, the authors wrote. Those feeling torn about their relationship can find clarity by learning how to resolve conflicts in more positive and cooperative ways — a key skill in successful romantic partnerships.
9. Never Underestimate The Importance Of Expressing Gratitude
Being thankful can go a long way in preserving a strong bond between couples, researchers of a study published in Personal Relationships found. In their study of 65 couples in committed relationships, the authors wrote that small gestures, such as picking up a favorite coffee drink for your partner or taking them out to dinner to celebrate a promotion, had a positive effect on how people felt about their relationships, if they were able to recognize and appreciate those gestures.
What’s more, the effect lingered the day after people’s partners had demonstrated their gratitude. “You'd be surprised how many little moments go by and couples don't take the opportunity to say, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ or ‘That was really nice,’” Mongno says. Expressing gratitude for your partner — about how much they mean even during a difficult time, for example, or how grateful you are for something you learned together — helps you slow down and be in the present moment, Mongno says: “And if you make it an active practice, you’ll start doing it naturally.”
10. Be A “We,” Not A “Me”
A review of 30 studies involving more than 5,000 subjects published in 2018 suggests that couples that use “we” and “us” pronouns when talking about their relationships tend to be healthier, happier and in more successful partnerships, wrote the University of California, Riverside, researchers. Using “we” and “us” appears to reflect interdependence (meaning partners affect each other’s thoughts) and positivity, which leads to healthier relationships, the authors concluded.
“People who are able to take a ‘we’ approach tend to be better at considering their partners’ perspectives, which can help foster thinking of yourself as a team,” Lavner adds. “When people are focused just on themselves, that’s limiting and can prove more difficult for their relationships.”
11. Focus On The Future
When couples are dealing with conflict, it can be helpful to take a step back to consider the big picture, suggests a 2016 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. By focusing on the future when experiencing relationship conflicts, instead of on the negative feelings in the moment, people expressed less blame toward their partners and greater insight and forgiveness, the authors wrote.
“You shouldn’t try to avoid all conflict, but trying to keep your eyes on your future together, rather than scoring points at that particular moment, can help couples reduce the sting of the conflict and turn down the heat,” Lavner says. Particularly with smaller arguments, if couples can ask themselves, “Does this affect our future together?” or, “Will I care about this a year from now?” It can be comforting when the honest answer is “no.”
12. Always Try New Things
Spending time together, regardless of the activity, strengthens relationships, according to an study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Novel activities, however, are particularly helpful for staving off relationship boredom. “Doing the same thing 100 times might not feel as special, so the degree to which you respond to it will be less,” Lavner says. “It’s good to be open to trying new things and to be thoughtful about what you’re doing together as well.”
13. Maintain A Strong Outside Support Network
Feeling like you have a solid support network helps maintain marital happiness, a 2017 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded. The outside support can help mitigate negative feelings about conflict within the marriage, researchers also found.
“Outside support is essential; we can't rely on our partner for everything,” Mongno says. “Sometimes we need other perspectives and other emotional support, particularly if our partner is not good at empathy.”
14. Put Down Your Phone
“Phubbing,” a portmanteau for “phone” and “snubbing,” means scrolling through your phone while your partner is talking to you. Recent research suggests the practice is as annoying as one would guess: When study participants kept a diary for 10 days, researchers found that on days when phubbing was more frequent, partners were less satisfied and more resentful about their relationships, according to the 2021 paper published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2021.
“Many of us are on our phones a lot, so it’s important to be mindful about whether that’s interfering in the person-to-person interactions you’re having,” Lavner says.