COLUMBIA, Mo. – If you had to name the most important thing in your life, what would it be? Chances are it would be a relationship: with your significant other, children, parents, some other family member or good friends.
Relationships are not just important in the “feel good” sense. They also have a strong impact on our mental and physical health, says Kale Monk, a University of Missouri associate professor and state extension youth and family specialist.
Social connections can affect how long we live. Researchers found that socially isolated people are more likely to die prematurely than those who are socially connected. Furthermore, the impact of social isolation is equal to or stronger than factors like smoking, lack of exercise and pollution.
But not all connections are good for our health, Monk says. When someone says, “You make me sick,” it might be literally true. Bad relationships may not only make us more anxious or depressed, they can increase inflammation and affect our immune systems. In one study, couples were given a small incision. Researchers found that couples in more distressed relationships healed 60% more slowly than those in more satisfying relationships.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, how can we strengthen our relationships? There’s a lot of research on relationships. Monk himself co-wrote a whole book on the topic – Relationship Maintenance: Theory Process, and Context. He offers 10 tips to get you started.
1. Engage in regular relationship maintenance
Most people don’t wait until their car breaks down to get it worked on. You check the oil, rotate the tires and address things before they become major issues. Relationships take a lot of care and maintenance. Don’t just think about nurturing them on Valentine’s Day or your anniversary. Treat this Valentine’s Day more like a New Year’s relationship resolution and have check-ins throughout the year.
2. Build a solid foundation of friendship and admiration
Couples therapist John Gottman uses the term “love maps” to describe making space in your mind for your partners by really getting to know them.
This not only shows you how to love them best but also demonstrates that you are genuinely interested. You can even purchase “love map cards” and play something like the Newlywed Game.
These activities can help you learn more about your partner’s desires, concerns and priorities, Monk said. You might ask questions like, “Who are your best friends?” “What was your favorite vacation?” “What is your ultimate goal in life?” Answers can change over time, so keep asking and talking.
Ask meaningful questions like “What are you most concerned about or looking forward to?” or “What are your favorite ways of being soothed when stressed?” These questions are more useful than general inquiries like “How are you?” Show genuine interest by really listening and asking follow-up questions.
3. Respond appropriately to bids for connection
Ordinary, everyday interactions, not grand gestures, are really what determine the success of a relationship, research shows. When partners try to connect in day-to-day ways – asking what you want for dinner, sharing a fond memory, asking for your opinion, pointing out something interesting they heard at work or read in the news – we call these “bids,” or attempts to connect, Monk says. Gottman’s research shows that partners can respond negatively (turning against), positively (turning toward) or neutrally (turning away).
Monk shares this example from his own life:
“My wife really likes the Kansas City Royals,” he says. “To say I am neutral about baseball is being generous. Several years ago, she said, ‘The Royals are going to the World Series!’ I responded, ‘Oh, neat. What do you want me to make for dinner?’
“I could immediately tell she was deflated by my dismissive response to her excitement. She wanted to share more, and I had changed the subject instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to connect more deeply.
“It wasn’t as bad as me saying, ‘All you talk about is the Royals! Who cares about the Royals?’ This would be an example of a ‘turning against’ response, which would have been even more discouraging and is highly predictive of breakup. However, a ‘turning toward’ response that helped us connect would have been best: ‘You must be so excited! What does this mean for the team? What are you most excited about? Who is your favorite player?’”
This type of response helps us learn more about each other as we share in each other’s interests and grow our intimacy (i.e., building that ‘love map’ foundation), adds.
4. Be wary of ‘soulmates’
People with a “soulmate” or “relationship destiny” mentality – believing there is one perfect partner and you’re “it” – are more likely to have problematic relationship outcomes. Why? Because they may not be willing to put in the hard work to make the relationship a success.
They start with the mindset “You should be able to read my mind and know what I need and want. Since fate has put us together, we should never disagree and always be in tune.” When disagreements inevitably arise, the person is more likely to be disappointed in their “not-so-perfect” partner and decide that they’re not, after all, their ideal match.
A “growth” mindset is more realistic, recognizing that maintaining relationships takes effort. “We have to work at our relationships by ‘watering our own lawn’ instead of assuming the grass is greener elsewhere,” Monk says.
5. Consider your attributions
We constantly form judgments about other people’s actions, make assumptions about their motives, and assess blame, Monk says.
Imagine your partner is late for dinner. A negative attribution would be deciding they are late because they are an inconsiderate jerk who does not care about the relationship. A more positive attribution would be to externalize the blame. Maybe there was traffic or an unexpected work deadline. Doesn’t your partner deserve the benefit of the doubt until you have all the facts?
On the flip side, if our partner does something nice like getting flowers, first assume it’s because they are a kind person and not because they must have done something wrong.
In healthy relationships, we try to assume the best of intentions in our partners (unless, of course, the track record shows otherwise).
6. ‘Go to the balcony’ for an adult timeout
We often become stressed in the heat of conflict. Stress activates the body’s fight, flight or freeze response. Although this involuntary reaction can be useful in threatening situations, it is often unhelpful in healthy conflict. So, what to do in these heated situations?
First, focus on what's going on in your body at that moment. Maybe you’re feeling tension in your shoulders, breathing a little too heavily, clenching your jaw. Focus on relaxing your tension and slowing your breathing, if it is safe to do so.
What are our emotions telling us? We need time to process them before we respond. Maybe take a timeout instead of responding with something you might regret.
Conflict resolution expert Bill Ury recommends that we “go to the balcony” — look on as if you’re a third party to the disagreement. As you watch two people arguing below, what do you see? Are you raising your voice? Would you be proud or embarrassed of your behavior?
Now consider what you would want to be seeing. What should you do differently? What was your contribution to the misunderstanding? Questions like these help with gaining perspective, finding common ground and seeing each other as joint problem solvers instead of adversaries.
7. Couples who play together, stay together
Engaging in playful, new or exciting activities gives us an opportunity to build intimacy and attribute joyful experiences to each other.
In a study by Arthur Aron, researchers tied romantic partners together, had them get on their hands and knees and push a foam object across the room. “It was as goofy as it sounds!” Monk says.
Partners engaged in this activity reported more relationship satisfaction than those randomly assigned to more mundane activities. So, a date night doesn’t have to break the bank. “The more ridiculous or fun the activity, the better, in my opinion,” he says. “Do something that makes both of you laugh and enjoy each other’s company!”
8. Use social media sparingly
Social media isn’t all bad. We can use it to stay connected with those we love and publicly express our pride or love for our partners. But Facebook, Instagram and TikTok can also come at a cost, eliciting jealousy and monitoring by controlling partners. And sometimes people do not present a realistic picture of their lives. If we try to “keep up,” these artificially positive glimpses into other people’s lives can leave us feeling discouraged and resentful. Becoming consumed by social media and posting excessively can indicate growing insecurity in ourselves or our relationships.
If you find social media leaves you feeling upset or unfulfilled, take a break. Engage in more direct contact – face to face, online or by phone – with loved ones you trust.
9. Express gratitude
When your partner does something you appreciate, it’s vital to express gratitude, research shows. This makes partners feel valued and helps us see how we can keep pleasing each other. (See tip No. 2.)
Research also shows that expressing gratitude can be contagious, Monk says. When we show appreciation, partners often reciprocate and continue making kind gestures and performing caring acts in return. Find out-of-the-ordinary ways to show you care, too. Leave a note in your loved one’s pocket or make a favorite meal and tell them how grateful you are for them.
10. Don’t be afraid to seek help
No relationship is truly “average,” Monk says. Partners need different things and respond in ways that can vary by culture, age and many other factors. So, seek out therapy or counseling for help with your relationship, especially if you feel unsafe applying any of these tips on your own.
Remember that therapy is not only for troubled relationships, he says. Therapy can help preserve relationship happiness and prevent problems before significant conflicts arise. See tip No. 1 about routine, preventive relationship maintenance and “tuneups.”
To find a qualified therapist in your area, Monk recommends therapist locators like those from Psychology Today or through the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
- ShowMe Healthy Relationships from MU Department of Human Development and Family Science, http://www.showmehealthyrelationships.com
- Family and home education programs, publications and more MU Extension, https://extension.missouri.edu/topics/family-and-home-education
- Relevate: Elevate your relationships with information from trusted relationship experts, https://myrelevate.com
Additional resources and readings
Monk, J. K., Proulx, C., Marini, C., & Fiori, K. (2020). Advancing research and theory on aging military veterans in a relational context. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 12(2), 180-199.
Ogolsky, B. G., Monk, J. K., Rice, T. M., Theisen, J. C., & Maniotes, C. R. (2017). Relationship maintenance: A review of research on romantic relationships. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 9(3), 275-306.
Ogolsky, B. G., & Monk, J. K. (Eds.). (2020). Relationship maintenance: Theory, process, and context. Cambridge University Press.
Ogolsky, B. G., & Monk, J. K. (2018). Maintaining relationships. In A. Vangelisti, & D. Perlman (Eds),The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships (pp.523-537). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316417867.040.