So Your Relationship Isn’t Working? Maybe You Aren’t Trying Hard Enough

If it’s worth having, it’s worth working at.

It’s a well-worn cliché that relationships take work. But, we often wonder, exactly how much work should a relationship be?

In the early days, there’s nothing hard about it – you never tire of your beloved’s voice; you could gaze into his eyes all day and sleep wrapped in each other’s arms all night. Disagreements are easily put aside, you can’t keep your hands off each other, and you marvel at how easy it is to be together. It’s all so perfect, you want it to last forever.

But, in a phenomenon researchers call “hedonic adaptation”, that passion inevitably cools. Psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky says in order for a relationship to last, infatuation must give way to what she calls “companionate love”, which consists less of wanting to tear each other’s clothes off and more of “deep affection, connection, and liking”.

In other words, when you’re done having the hottest, dirtiest sex of your life, you need to be able to have a deep conversation about real-life stuff, negotiate whose family you’ll spend the holidays with, and come to an agreement on your common goals and values. At some point, a relationship isn’t all butterflies and floating on air anymore – it’s difficult, frustrating, and sometimes tedious. In other words, it’s work.

Often, couples worry they’ve fallen out of love when their relationship hits this phase. And it’s true that not all relationships are built to last. Sometimes, getting out is the best thing for everyone involved. But other times, it’s merely a matter of adjusting: knowing what to do to keep your love alive.

Researcher Richard Lucas and his colleagues at Michigan State University concluded that marriage only boosts a couple’s ‘happiness levels’ for an average of two years, after which point, people go back to being the same level of happy – or unhappy – they were before they coupled up. But Lyubomirsky says couples can slow down this evolution, or even potentially avoid it completely, by putting in some work – the right kind of work. Here’s what she says you need to do, if you want to keep that loving feeling alive…

Appreciate each other

Too often, we fixate on the things our partners do that bother us, rather than appreciating their wonderful qualities. To some extent, this is just human nature – we’re hardwired to pay more attention to perceived threats than to things that are going well. Chalk it up to the survival instinct. But Lyubomirsky reminds us it’s important to focus on the good stuff and not take our partners for granted. Take some time every day to think about why you fell in love with this person in the first place, and look for opportunities to express your gratitude and love for each other.

Surprise each other

Once you’ve been a couple for a while, you start to know what to expect from each other. You’ve heard all each other’s embarrassing childhood stories and family dramas, you know what your partner does and doesn’t like (to eat, to watch, to do in bed), and there’s a certain comfortable predictability to your life together. But you know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt; so Lyubomirsky encourages people to mix things up and add some variety to their routines. Take a class together and learn a new skill; go on a spontaneous trip away or make some new friends. Novelty, says Lyubomirsky, is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Make time for each other

Once you’re past the stage of wanting to spend every minute together, real-life responsibilities can easily take precedence over spending quality time with your partner. But if you want to keep your love alive, you’ve got to make it a priority. Having a regular date night is great, but it’s important to spend time talking (and listening!) to each other every day as well. Find any excuse you can to be together – run errands together, clean up dinner together while you talk about the day, and check in with each other before you fall asleep at night. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder for so long – and then it becomes out of sight, out of mind.

Touch each other

While having plenty of good sex is vital to a relationship, other kinds of touch are just as important. “A pat on the back, a squeeze of the hand, a hug, an arm around the shoulder — the science of touch suggests that it can save a so-so marriage,” explains Lyubomirsky. “Introducing more [non-sexual] touching and affection on a daily basis will go a long way in rekindling the warmth and tenderness.” People’s ease with nonsexual touch varies depending on their backgrounds and personalities, but working to increase your physical contact within your individual comfort zones will help you feel more connected and sustain intimacy over the long haul.

Be cheerleaders for each other

It’s tempting to try and help our partners overcome their bad habits and negative personality traits by providing what we believe is constructive criticism. At least, that’s the way we often frame it when we get on our partner’s case and pick fights about what we think is wrong with them. But well-intentioned or not, this negativity tears our relationships apart. Psychologist and author of Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson says we need to cultivate positive energy in our relationships. In order for love to survive, says Fredrickson, our positive interactions need to outpace negative ones at a three-to-one rate. So put on your brightest cheerleader smile and root for your partner, rather than nagging him.

Take five

Lyubomirsky says happily married couples average five positive interactions for every negative one, and suggests asking yourself every morning, “What can I do for five minutes today to make my partner’s life better?” It could be something as small as a smile and a kiss, sharing a funny story, or sending an emoji-filled text to check in during the day. These little things add up; think of it as money in the love bank. Inevitably, you’ll have to make a withdrawal (that is, you’ll have a knock-down, drag-out fight), but if you’ve invested enough, your relationship account will never be empty.

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Comment: How much work do you think a relationship should take?