Want to know how to improve your relationship in 2021? Start with the science. All relationships go through tough times and challenges, and if you’re struggling in your relationship, especially after the stresses and strains of 2020, take heart. Great relationships don’t happen by luck. According to research, there are several specific skills and actions that strengthen our relationships.
Here are the top relationship tips backed by science – as well as our fantastic group of couples therapists, experts and academics – that are guaranteed to increase your relationship satisfaction and happiness in 2021
Happy couples form what scientists call a ‘secure base’ so they can become more, together and individually, than they would have been apart. “It’s as if they’re on a lifelong adventure where they enthusiastically support growth,” says relationship expert and author of Love Factually, Dr. Duana Welch – “Join them! On New Year’s Day, in addition to eating black-eyed peas and sleeping in late, set aside some couples time to brainstorm something to achieve together in 2021, and something to achieve individually with one another’s whole-hearted backing.”
What relationship resolutions will you set this year? Take our relationship quiz
It may not come as a surprise to you that, according to a study by Pew Research, couples who agree to share chores at home are more likely to be happier in their relationships. There is, however, one important caveat – this only works if the different responsibilities are clearly defined for each partner. According to the findings, agreeing on tasks in advance enabled partners to fulfil their duties without interference, and were more likely to feel valued and respected for their individual contributions.
Do you split household chores fairly? Take our relationship quiz
A study led by Li Guan, a social scientist from Cornell University, found that couples that share memories together – and in particular autobiographical ones – feel closer than those that don’t.
And what better time than the start of the year, says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, Professor of Sociology and Intimacy at Open University and Chief Relationship Officer at Paired: “As good cheer may be in short supply at present, lift your spirits by recalling a time over the past 12 months when you laughed out loud together. Recall the moment and enjoy those positive feelings again.”
Few couples really take the time to practice the simple act of daily conversation that helps them understand each other better and get stronger as a couple. “Couples know such details as their partners’ weekly schedules, pet peeves and hygiene habits, however, there is a lot more to find out,” says Professor of Sociology at Oakland University and relationship expert, Dr. Terri Orbuch.
“My advice is to set aside 10 minutes a day to talk together about anything under the sun except kids, work, household tasks or your relationship! You can talk about sports, movies, articles you’ve read, where you would like to travel to if you won the lottery, or what superhero power you wish you had. The point is you’re making room to get to know your partner again,” she says.
Terri's course on how to improve your relationship and reignite the spark is now available in the Paired app.
Psychologist Dr. John Gottman places a lot of importance on reunions for couples; he suggests that when you see your partner at the end of the day, share a hug and a kiss that last at least six seconds followed by a conversation about your day. As well as providing moments of reconnection and intimacy, these activities become a symbolic way to shut the door on work, creating a boundary that allows you to give your full, undivided attention to your partner.
The ‘Enduring Love?’ study, led by Gabb and others at The Open University, found that loving a partner ‘warts and all’, and accepting their quirks as part of what makes them who they are is the basis of lasting satisfaction in relationships.
“Leaning in to your partner’s odd habits, embracing their quirky personality traits and humoring their differences (as opposed to rolling your eyes or turning away) is one of the greatest acts of love in a relationship,” says Gabb.
A Brigham Young University study found that higher levels of materialism are associated with less satisfaction in a marriage. The researchers found that partners who focused on possessions rather than people ended up investing less time and energy into making their marriages successful.
In fact, other studies support this. The ‘Enduring Love?’ study also found that partners don’t need materialistic things to feel loved. “My research found that thoughtful gestures do not need to be expensive gifts but that it’s their personal meaning which is paramount,” says Gabb.
A study conducted by Faye Doell identified two different types of listening: ‘listening to understand’ and ‘listening to respond’. According to her findings, those who “listen to understand” have greater satisfaction in their relationships. “I recommend that my clients practice ‘active listening’ to their partners in order to do this,” says Paired’s couple therapist Anjula Mutanda, “this means looking each other in the eyes when you’re having a conversation, mirroring your partner’s body language, letting them finish what they have to say, and reflecting back what you have heard.”
How well do you listen to your partner? Take our relationship quiz
Make 2021 the year you have a deeper connection with your partner by being present. “Binge-watching boxsets and sitting next to each other staring at your smartphones isn’t promoting bonding or closeness,” says Mutanda.
“These are distractions. Bad communication habits that are left unchecked can cause your relationship to drift into the territory of intimate strangers. Instead, prioritise being present and pay attention to each other – this way you’ll be mindful of your actions, show your partner you value them and cherish what you have."
Research on long-term relationships that showed how dancing and ‘being daft’ was used by couples in a variety of positive ways – it provides an opportunity for fun and frivolity; a moment of sensual intimacy; and a space in which to hold at bay ‘the blues’. “So enjoy the moment, step out of those proverbial carpet slippers and dance to ‘your tunes’ together,” says Gabb.
Dr. John Gottman found that 94% of the time, the tone a conversation starts with is the same one it will end with. Arguments often blow up because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark.
This year, make a resolution to bring up issues gently and softly with your partner. Use “I statements” that encourage you to lead with your own thoughts and feelings rather than placing blame and it will allow you to calmly engage in constructive conversation, even when you disagree.
Conventional wisdom suggests that more sex means greater happiness in a marriage. After all, sex releases endorphins and feel-good hormones that promote physical and mental wellbeing. Yet, a study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2015 found that couples who have sex weekly are the happiest; but that there was no link between more frequent sex and greater happiness.
Sex naturally ebbs and flows over time, so as long as you’re maintaining an intimate connection with your partner then the number of times you have sex is good for you.
How satisfied are you with how often you have sex? Take our relationship quiz
Although commonly viewed as something that can come between partners, science shows that friendships are actually hugely beneficial for relationships.
“The ‘Enduring Love?’ study found that friendships provide extraneous emotional support and validation, and help enable partners to retain an important sense of who they are, individually, within and outside the couple relationship,” says Gabb.
A Florida State study found that expressing anger via a heated yet honest conversation, despite causing discomfort short-term, may benefit the health of the relationship in the long-term.
There are plenty of studies that support this. Many people can find connection or excitement with another person, but the true test of strong relationships, according to Gottman and others, is being able to express feelings honestly, "fight well" and resolve conflict.
When researchers at the University of Michigan studied almost 3,000 married couples, they found that those with similar drinking habits enjoyed happier lives together. The study revealed that if one partner remained sober while the other enjoyed drinks, they weren’t as satisfied in their marriage. Cheers.
One study found that couple-focused pronouns such as "we," "our", and "us" helped partners get through disagreements with lower stress, while pronouns such as "I", "you", and "me" increased marital dissatisfaction.
Experts suggest that by using these pronouns we set in motion a ‘connectedness’ program in the brain (and body) so that – rather than being in survival mode (think: you against me) – we can be more creative, collaborative and loving in our daily lives.
In her long-term study of relationships, Orbuch found that when couples avoid difficult discussions about money, religion, children, and in-laws, they are less happy over time.
The key here is not to wait for issues to arise, she says, instead, have these conversations regularly so there are no unwanted surprises, and “keep them positive so they don't feel like a chore, take breaks if you find yourselves getting angry or defensive, and strive to understand your partner’s point of view and reach a compromise, even when you disagree,” she says.
How do you handle money as a couple? Take our relationship quiz
Research conducted out of the University of Maryland found that couples who had friendships with other couples enjoyed happier marriages overall. Apparently, these healthy couple friendships allow couples to experience greater understanding of men and women in general, and allow partners to observe the way other couples interact and negotiate differences. The study also found these double dates to bring a fun and exciting quality into the relationship that increased partner attraction.
“Physical closeness expresses that we’re there for our partner; that they can trust us and have our support,” says Gabb. A study from the University of North Carolina showed that when couples were instructed to hold hands while trying to solve a disagreement, they were far more likely to resolve their differences than another group of couples trying to do the same thing without the instruction to hold hands.
Furthermore, the couples who held hands showed lower stress levels and found a solution more quickly than the other group.
When facing conflict in a relationship, our minds are conditioned to generate a variety of explanations for our partner’s behaviour, ranging from ones that are more … charitable (let’s say) to ones that quickly assign blame. Psychologists refer to this as our ‘attributional style’.
Past research has found that individuals with a ‘hostile’ attributional style – those who go straight for a negative conclusion – tend to be less happy in a relationship. In fact one study found that people with these tendencies were less likely to be happy in general. All the more reason to give your partner the benefit of the doubt in 2021.
In the fog of everyday life, it can be easy to forget this one simple bit of relationship wisdom – say nice things to each other. Research finds that saying nice things to your partner not only reduces their cholesterol and stress levels, and boosts their immune system. But it also boosts yours. “Make time to tell your partner why you love them and the positive things that they bring to you and your relationship – quirks and all,” says Welch, “it’ll do your relationship the world of good in 2021.”
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