One of the hardest things to keep in mind when it comes to dating is that the work doesn’t end just because you’re in a relationship. It’s easy to get tunnel vision, especially when you’ve been working so hard at the early stages – developing your approach, learning how to generate attraction, etc. – that once you start having some successes… you don’t know quite what to do next. We’re taught to have unrealistic expectations about relationships; even when we understand intellectually that they take work and maintenance, in practice, we have a tendency to think that they’re supposed to be exercises in self-perpetuating happiness.
And it’s easy as long as you’re in the honeymoon stage, when your partner can do no wrong and her farts smell like rainbows and angel’s smiles, when even his bed-head is adorable and that weird noise he makes with his teeth when he’s thinking is quirky, not annoying.
But it’s what happens when the New Relationship Smell starts to fade and those cute little quirks are starting to be the things that drive you crazy that determines whether or not you’re going to have a long and happy relationship. If you want to have an amazing relationship, you have to know what it takes to make it last.
Remember the 5 to 1 Ratio
One of the oldest sexist cliches about women in relationships is that they will remember every single slight, mistake and argument, packing them away like a passive-aggressive squirrel burying hate-nuts for the winter… and pull them out at the worst possible moment during a fight.
Of course, it’s not only women that do this; both men and women will bring up old grievances at the drop of a hat, keeping score in a perverse game of “who’s really the wronged party” where the only winners are liquor stores and divorce lawyers. But there’s actually a reason why those old conflicts hang around so prominently in our memory: the psychological phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Our brains are literally wired to be more sensitive to things that upset us… and this includes the many times that we feel like our partner has done us wrong. Whether it’s that we don’t seem to appreciate something nice they did for us or a moment of unthinking selfishness on our partner’s part, those little moments of anger and pain linger far longer in our memories than the good times… and those add up. In fact, studies have found that the bad moments have five times the impact that a positive one does, so it takes approximately five good moments to each bad one to balance things out. If the ratio drops below 5 to 1 of positive to negative interactions, the relationship suffers.
Now obviously, it’s almost impossible to keep track of every single accidental insult, snarky remark or hurt feeling, so attempting to keep an exact tally is absurd. But it’s worth keeping the ratio in mind as a reason why you want to have more kindness, more moments of unprompted affection, more compliments and more thoughtful moments. They can make the difference between a long, happy relationship and a bitter break-up. And speaking of positive moments…
Want to make your relationship better? Spend time being grateful for your partner. Not only can being grateful make you a happier, more positive person, but it can improve your relationship as well.
When we’re in relationships, we have a tendency to settle into certain roles and patterns of behavior. Even in the most egalitarian relationships, we tend to drift into roles that suit our skills and personalities – often without even thinking about it. One person will do a larger share of the housework for example, while the other may be the unofficial cook. The problem is that over the course of a long-term relationship, we tend to get used to the fact that our partners fill those roles… and if we’re not careful, we even take them for granted. One of the surest ways to ruin a relationship is through indifference; no matter how much you may love cooking for your snugglebunny, if you feel like it’s just something you’re expected to do, you’re going to resent it.
Everyone wants to be reminded that the person we’re in a relationship with thinks we’re special and that they’re glad we’re part of their lives. It doesn’t have to be something huge; nobody’s asking for a standing ovation for doing the day to day chores and errands or making it through another day at a crappy job so you can pay your half of the rent. But taking the time to let your honey know – unprompted – that you notice the effort they put in to the relationship and that you appreciate it lets them know that you’re paying attention and that you’re not taking their presence for granted. More often than not, it’s the little things that mean the most just because they’re the things that we do that we think nobody notices. So take time – every day if you can – to remind your partner that you’re grateful for them and for what they do for you. You’d be amazed at just how much happier your relationship will be when you do.
Have A Life Outside of Your Relationship
It’s great that your honey-bunny is your best friend; that’s actually one of the qualities that makes for a strong, lasting relationship. But that doesn’t mean that he or she is your only friend… and if they are, this can put some serious stress on your relationship in the long run. This is something that many couples struggle with. After all, another of the oldest relationship cliches is the man or woman who gets into a relationship and never sees their friends again. In some relationships, they have to practically beg to get a night out with the guys or to spend more time with the girls. One enterprising company actually created an app that automatically texts your girlfriend so you can have “more bro time”.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the happiest couples out there are the ones who have a vibrant and active social life outside of just the two of them. It’s actually important for your emotional well-being – and your partner’s – to maintain those relationships that aren’t built exclusively on your being together.
It can be difficult for some couples to make time for people outside of their “couple” friends; some even see this as somehow sacrificing their own emotional intimacy for the sake of others. When you’re in a relationship, it’s only natural you’re going to prioritize spending time with your partner over your friends… but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carve out time to spend with them. After all, no matter how much we may love a person, we can’t be all things to them, nor can they to us. In fact, when they’re the sole custodian of our emotional support, it can leave both parties feeling trapped and smothered. By having an active social life outside of the relationship, you’re broadening your base of social engagement. As a result: you aren’t putting quite so much of the responsibility for your emotional upkeep on your partner and fostering some very necessary “me” time as well. A designated game night with your buddies, planned outings, even just regular get-togethers to hang out and just catch up, can mean the difference between feeling trapped and a stronger, healthier relationship.
Have More Sex
OK, so this one is kind of a “duh George”. After all, dissatisfaction with one’s sex life – in all its many forms – is one of the most common reasons why couples break up, right after financial stresses. Hell, the idea that relationships are the death knell of sex is another of the oldest cliches that gets passed around. And to be fair: there’s a certain level of truth to it. The Coolidge Effect – an inborn desire for sexual novelty found in male and female mammals – does mean that that initial rush of passion fades over time, and the day to day stresses and responsibilities can make it hard to find the time or even throw your libidos out of whack so that one of you gets horny in the morning while the other’s raring to go after the sun goes down.
And – let’s be honest – once you’ve been together for a while, there will be plenty of times when one or both of you would rather pass on sex for a good night’s sleep because hey, you’ve got that damn meeting in the morning and it’s already 10:30 and…
But this isn’t just about keeping the spark in your relationship (although that can be important); it’s about what sex does specifically to make your relationship maintenance easier.
See, sex is actually kind of goddamn amazing for your mental health and physical well-being. Having an active sex life helps alleviate stress and and depression, relieves physical pain, helps you sleep better and even improves your mood – making you calmer and more patient. Orgasms produce oxytocin – the chemical associated with feelings of love – which prompts emotional bonding, helping make you feel closer and more connected with your partner. Even physical affection without aiming for orgasms- cuddling, kissing, etc. – helps encourage more emotional closeness and feeling more connected and in tune with one another.
The problem is that most of us just “let sex happen” spontaneously… and as a result, we end up having less and less of it over time. This ends up being one of the biggest mistakes couples make… and why scheduling sex is so important for a happy relationship. Research shows that being “in the mood” often comes simultaneously with being physically aroused. So scheduling a make-out session and sticking to it even if you’re not necessarily feeling horny may seem unromantic as hell… but you’ll find that you’re actually going to be ready to get down as you get into it and the blood starts flowing to your happy bits.
The tricky part is working out just how much sex is the right amount of sex. Despite what many relationship therapists have advocated for years, there is no “ideal” number of times to have sex per week or month. In fact, trying to hold yourselves to an arbitrary number can cause otherwise satisfied couples to feel as though they’re doing something wrong if they go at it four times one week and zero the next. This is why it’s important to actually talk about your sex lives – what your expectations are, what you’d like more of, what you’d like less of and negotiating a compromise of how often you’d like to be having it that satisfies you both. Not only does negotiating your intimacy mean that both of you will be more satisfied – after all, good negotiation means that both sides are getting their needs met – but studies have shown that couples who hash out their sex lives together wind up feeling closer and more intimate.
Sounds like a win-win to me.
Expect More (and Be More)
The worst part about settling down means… well, settling. Not for your partner, but for settling into a routine, day to day existence. We have the capability to get used to anything, including being in a relationship with someone amazing, someone who’s so amazing that we can’t believe they’re dating us. Eventually, that honeymoon period when we want to impress them and try to show them nothing but our best, most attractive selves comes to an end and… well, some things just don’t seem as important as they once did. We get comfortable enough with them – and with our relationship – that we’re not worried about them seeing us when we’ve woken up hung over as hell and feeling like someone puked in our brain and the fact that we’ve bothered putting on pants should be considered an amazing accomplishment.
We’re not as worried about being perfect. We’re ok with them seeing us in our “don’t give a fuck” sweats. We allow ourselves to be a bit less conscientious, a little more self-absorbed. We begin to take them – and their feelings for us – for granted. We, quite frankly, let ourselves get a little lazy. So we don’t put in as much effort. We don’t worry about being as entertaining for our partners. We dial back our personal maintenance, let ourselves order the double-cheese pizza with extra cholesterol when we normally would’ve gotten the pasta primavera, spend a little less time on the personal grooming and just begin to settle in. We fall into ruts. Routines. Go on automatic.
And because we take our cues from our nearest and dearest… our partners tend to do so as well. And this can be a mistake.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that everyone has to be on their best behavior at all times or that you can’t relax into a relationship, especially a long-term one. But the couples who last are the ones who expect more from their partners… and from themselves. You see, these are the couples who continue to put in effort to keep things going – making a point of showing interest in what their partners have to say or to share new experiences with them, celebrating triumphs, even taking care of themselves.
It doesn’t have to be a huge production. You don’t need to be constantly proving your love by hiring sky-writers to cover the sky with love poems to your sweetie or taking them on candle-lit gondola tours of Venice. You just have to be willing to put in a little more effort. A little more affection, taking some time to just be together without distractions. Treating a date night like it’s your first date instead of “your Friday night plans”. Just a little more effort at putting your best self forward will make your partner feel amazing… and they’ll want to put more effort in to please you as well.
And that willingness to not settle, to keep making an effort through the years you have together… that is what will help ensure that you have a long and amazing relationship together.