Oh, Valentine’s Day. A time of year when we collectively become hyper-focused on relationships, getting reservations and the perfect gift that says “I love you”. As a couples therapist, I’m pretty obsessed with relationship health and creating a special space for connection and intimacy. As someone in a long term relationship, I’m well aware of the stress and pressure a holiday like this can bring.
Showing love and care extends so much further than a day or your wallet. So, I am here to share four “gifts” that you can bring to your relationship, all year round. I have fleshed out the what, the why, and the how for each one of these relationship habits. I recommend reading this with your partner over a nice box of chocolates. (Or whatever treat screams V-Day to you!)
1) Share Appreciations
What: Set a daily habit of saying at least one thing you appreciate about your partner.
Why: During the beginning phases of dating someone, we are more likely to ooze adorations and thanks onto our partners. You can thank brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine for some of that. Over time, these verbal or physical communications tend to drop off. While a normal side effect of a long term relationship, this change can really diminish cohesion and intimacy.
With most of the couples I see in my therapy office, this absence of positive communication is an area of focus. At times, the positive communication has been largely replaced by an over communication of what isn’t appreciated. While letting your partner know what bothers you has its place, you shouldn’t do it in the absence of telling them what you appreciate about them. In fact, leading relationship expert Dr. John Gottman recommends a 5:1 ratio when it comes to positive and negative communication. Sharing appreciation not only reminds you of why you chose them but also lets your partner know that they are safe and valued. This type of safety and security are the groundwork of healthy and sustainable intimacy.
How: The appreciation could be about a quality, a behavior or a specific action your partner has engaged in. Here is an example for each:
Quality: “I really love your sense of humor and how silly you are with me”
Behavior: “I appreciate how dedicated you are to keeping us financially stable. You work really hard.”
Specific Action: “Thank you so much for taking out the trash, you know how much I hate doing that!”
2) Give a 6-second Kiss
What: Set a daily habit of engaging in a 6-second kiss with your partner
Why: Kissing – while its historical origins are unknown (or my Google scholar search failed me) – has been a crucial part of relationships for centuries. It’s become a relationship ritual that signals love, passion and intimacy. Having rituals is an important part of connection, reliability and safety when it comes to relationships. However, what tends to happen in long term relationships is that the ritualistic kiss becomes a quick, unconscious and at times unremarkable occurrence.
A kiss has so much potential to stimulate some truly bonding hormones, including dopamine (responsible for a rush and high) and oxytocin (responsible for bonding and connection). Dr. John Gottman asserts that this “ritual of connection” is important to re-establish attachment and protect the relationship from ruptures. In fact, he believes in its power so much that he assigns couples to engage in a 6-second kiss when they part and then they come back together as part of couples therapy.
The idea is, you are turning your attention towards an intentional kiss rather than an unconscious one. The 6 seconds allows for the kiss to cross the threshold from perfunctory to passionate. Using this 6-second kiss as a transitional juncture lets your partner know “you’re important to me, and when you come back to me at the end of the day, it’s an event. You matter to me”.
How: Make the conscious effort to share a 6-second kiss when you part from each other and when you return back together. Use mindfulness to bring special awareness to your partner and your connection when you are embracing. Subsequent passionate make-out session is optional.
3) Have a State of the Union Meeting
What: Set a weekly habit of having a State of the Union Meeting
Why: I’m clearly on a Gottman kick as this healthy relationship tip is also from his canon of love! While the term “meeting” doesn’t necessarily evoke a feeling of passion, or excitement, having a weekly State of the Union meeting with your partner brings the gift of cohesion and prevents a series of unexpected disagreements down the line.
A State of the Union is a set time you and your partner set aside each week to discuss matters of the heart when it comes to your relationship and how things are going in the partnership together. The meeting allows space for “constructive conflict”, and the idea is to ensure that each person feels heard and understood on a matter before jumping into problem-solving as a team. Thus, preventing misunderstandings, resentments, and poor communication.
This weekly habit may be difficult to stick to at first. Who can really say that they’re looking forward to sitting down and hashing out things that need improvement in thier relationship? Often, couples have an underlying fear that talking about the skeletons in the closet will make it worse. However, I can promise you that the couples I’ve seen who do this end up really enjoying having these meetings because they see the positive impact it makes on the rest of their week together. What this meeting really communicates is “I care about how you feel, I care about how I can support you, and I trust that you can do the same for me. Our relationship matters”.
How: Collectively come up with a reasonable time to meet, for one hour at the end of the week. Each of you should spend some time journaling beforehand, picking one or two important matters you’d like to address, and getting clear on your thoughts. On top of that, write down 5 positive things you noticed in your partner over the week to create that 5:1 positive communication buffer. For more details on how to run a state of the union meeting cohesively, check out The Gottman Institute State of the Union page.
4) Start Dating Again
What: Set a bi-weekly habit of having a date night, morning, or afternoon,
Why: When I first start seeing new couples in the therapy room, one of my assessment questions is: “How often are you going on dates together?”. In most cases, there is room to improve! Especially for couples who live together, work together, or have started families, I see a trend in less protected date time together.
First, there’s a difference between time together and date time. Time together could constitute mindlessly watching TV next to each other, or running errands together. Not a lot of romance in those activities. Date time means special, dedicated time where you focus on connecting as a couple. Dates are an important part of relationships for many reasons. Think back to the beginning of your relationship. Dates were ways to get to know each other with stimulating conversations, share positive experiences, make memories and grow closer together.
When you stop dating each other, you run the risk of losing those connections, and most couples feel their romantic connection dampened. So it’s as simple as this – start dating again as if it were the beginning of your relationship! You’ll be surprised how it can bring back those feelings from your courtship days, minus the awkward experience.
How: Schedule in a date and stick to it the same you would a work meeting or doctor’s appointment. Unless one of you is going to the ER, there’s little reason this date should be rescheduled. When you are on the date, remove distractions and focus on each other. Ask questions, share thoughts and enjoy each other’s company. It could be 30 minutes or two hours, just fit it in in a reasonable way for your schedules.
So there we have it. Four relationship habits that are evidence-based to increase intimacy in your romantic relationship that doesn’t involve a two-hour wait at that french restaurant every couple in the city apparently made a reservation at. Valentine’s Day can be a great reminder to turn towards your partner and show some love, but the best relationships take consistent care, time, and action on both parties to keep them alive and healthy. So let Cupid point you in the direction of these healthy, year-round love habits.