While every marriage and partnership is different, there are a few things every couple wants from their relationship: They want to be inspired, connected and excited about being together. Most of us know that being in love isn’t really enough. A happy, healthy relationship requires good habits and a conscious commitment to practicing them.
By the time many people decide to see a couples therapist, they are feeling disconnected and lonely. They’re wondering where the love went or whether they chose the wrong person to love. They may be locked in a seemingly never-ending cycle of arguing and blaming.
If you want to improve your relationship, there are a lot of resources available to you.
There are countless articles, books, workshops and blogs by trained experts in the field of love and marriage. Young couples are coming to premarital therapy before problems arise in the hope of starting out on solid footing. Yet, despite all this advice, the divorce rate is still hovering around 50% and marriage is still a challenging relationship to sustain.
I’ve condensed tons of research + years of experience working with couples into these 8 essential tips for a healthy relationship.
1. Communicate directly about what makes you feel loved + cared for.
Although this might sound obvious, it’s surprising how many people long for their partners to be mind readers. Some even say that if their partner really loved them, they’d just know what they were looking for. In my experience, we tend to give love in the way we hope to receive it. This is not necessarily what your spouse is looking for. Talk about what love looks like to you, and be specific.
2. Resolve conflict sooner rather than later.
Avoiding conflict does not make it go away. In fact, when you fail to resolve it, it festers and becomes resentment. Make it a point to rid yourselves of bad communication habits such as failing to listen, shutting down, placating, criticizing and arguing. Learning better tools is the work of a long-term relationship and worth every bit of time and effort it takes.
3. Get to know each other better.
When we’re first falling in love, we have an innate curiosity about the other. Thinking that you know everything about your partner squelches your curiosity and deadens the relationship. Foster a desire to know more and more about your partner throughout the relationship to keep it exciting.
4. Accentuate the positive.
Focusing on what’s wrong, or on what you’re not getting from your partner, leads to criticism and defensiveness. Thanks to the frequently quoted research by marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D., we know that it takes five positive interactions to undo just one negative one in an intimate relationship. Focus on your partner’s strengths and express gratitude often.
5. Listen deeply.
Listen with your eyes, reach out and touch, lend your full presence to your partner. Nothing builds connection better than knowing that the other is truly interested. Frequently we listen just long enough to know how we want to respond or where to interrupt. Focus on trying to understand the nuances of your partner’s language and beliefs. Learn these three powerful words: “Tell me more.”
6. Create + share your wildest dreams for the relationship.
When was the last time, if ever, that the two of you sat down and talked about your highest aspirations for your relationship? Dreaming of what’s possible is a lovely way to work together on setting your relationship on its best path. Stating your highest mission allows you to focus on it, rather than on the day-to-day skirmishes that get in the way.
7. Explore sexual expectations.
Often, good sex doesn’t “just happen.” It requires open communication and a sharing of what’s expected. When couples are in the early stages of a relationship, their brains produce large doses of certain chemicals and hormones that make sex frequent and passionate. The abundance of one such hormone, vasopressin, creates great sexual arousal and attraction. As it begins to wear off, couples are faced with a need to talk about their sexual expectations and desires and to create meaningful sexual encounters.
8. Acknowledge the impact of your past.
Our brains are wired for survival. One of the ways we are protected from hurt is by remembering everything that’s ever hurt us before. When our partner triggers one of these memories, we react from the limbic part of our brain, where there is no distinction between the past and the present. To truly understand ourselves and our partners, we must be willing to acknowledge the ways in which our past is influencing our emotions and behaviors.
A version of this article was originally published on Marriage.com.