7 Simple Exercises To Strengthen Your Relationship – The New York Times
Romantic relationships take work during the best of times, but the pandemic has created a unique set of challenges — and opportunities — for many couples.
For some, the past two years have meant forced togetherness in cramped quarters, more fighting and shifting priorities. But studies show it hasn’t been all bad. About one-third of couples said that their relationships improved during the pandemic, in part because they learned better communication skills and enjoyed spending time together.
Whether your own relationship has suffered or flourished during the last few years, every partnership can benefit from a tuneup. We gathered seven relationship exercises, based on science, that can help couples strengthen their bond. You and your partner can do one exercise a day for a week — or just pick and choose a few that sound fun to try.
Identify at least five things your partner routinely does to show love. Keep track of the big and little things both of you do or say that make you feel loved and connected to each other. Include things as small as a compliment or a kiss goodbye, or more grand gestures such as buying flowers, cooking dinner or cleaning up. Studies show that in successful relationships, the positive interactions outnumber the negative moments by at least five to one.
When researchers studied videos of couples discussing various topics, they noticed a variety of positive and negative interactions. Some couples laughed, smiled, touched and complimented each other, even during disagreements. Others rolled their eyes, sneered or became angry or defensive. From this work, a striking pattern emerged. The couples that were destined to stay together showed at least five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. In real life, nobody can consistently keep a running tally of positive and negative displays, but the lesson is clear: Ramping up the positive and kind gestures in a relationship may help insulate your relationship from the inevitable bad days.
Other studies support the value of being kind and generous to your partner. Research from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project studied the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women. Generosity was defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly,” such as simply making them coffee in the morning, showing affection often or being willing to forgive. Couples with the highest scores on the generosity scale were far more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages.
Find as many opportunities as you can to hold hands with your partner today: sitting at the breakfast table, heading out the door or watching television. Then, spend a few minutes talking about something in your life that is causing you stress and anxiety. Maybe it’s a problem at work, an issue with the kids or a financial worry. Whatever it is, hold your partner’s hand while you are talking about it.
Think about how it feels to touch your partner, to feel your hand squeezed and to squeeze another hand.
The Beatles were just singing about love when they wrote “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but science has proved them right. Research shows not only that regular touch is a powerful way to build your connection with someone, but also that hand-holding lowers stress.
James A. Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, recruited 16 married women to take part in a study about how holding hands affects the brain. To simulate stress, he subjected each woman to a mild electric shock while the woman was in three scenarios: alone, holding a stranger’s hand and holding her husband’s hand.
Brain scans showed that the stress of being shocked was lower when the woman was holding anybody’s hand. But when the woman was holding her husband’s hand, the calming effect was even greater and was similar to the effect of a pain-relieving drug. The benefit of holding hands was particularly pronounced among women who had the highest marital happiness scores. Dr. Coan repeated the study with committed same-sex couples and found a similar benefit.
Why does hand holding make a difference in a relationship? Dr. Coan said the research suggests that a supportive marriage or committed partnership gives the brain the opportunity to outsource some of its most difficult neural work. This basically means that when partners take our hands, they are also carrying some of our emotional burden.
Each partner should pick a favorite story — it could be an excerpt from a book or magazine, a children’s book or a poem. Now, find time to read your selections to each other. You will be surprised by how much fun it is to have someone read to you and to read to someone you love. Don’t just listen to the words; be aware of your partner’s voice.
After the reading, take some time to talk about why you each selected the piece you read. Did it have special meaning to you?
Research shows that people grow closer to each other when we reveal something about ourselves and share new thoughts and ideas. Studies also show that relationships benefit when couples experience new things together. Remember how you felt when a parent read to you as a child? The act of reading to each other can foster the same feelings of comfort and closeness.
Write down one or two of your partner’s annoying habits that create occasional conflict in your relationship. (Often, these small conflicts involve domestic chores, such as paying bills, doing laundry or making the bed.)
Share your picks with each other and talk about them without judgment. Use the conversation to identify a positive trait that might help explain the behavior. Maybe your husband drops his things in the entryway every night. Is it because he’s rushing to see the kids before bedtime? Is your wife grumpy after work? Maybe it’s because she skipped lunch during work so she could be home sooner with the family.
Learning what’s behind a particular behavior can help you accept it — and even appreciate it.
This is a short exercise in “acceptance therapy.” Researchers know that 70 percent of the conflicts we have with our partners are never actually resolved. But that doesn’t mean these little annoyances don’t add up and create a lot of extra stress in our lives. Rather than trying to force change, acceptance therapy encourages partners to learn to accept each other’s differences. When partners feel accepted and understood, they are more likely to change willingly, often making more changes than requested. And even if no change occurs, acceptance and compassion are likely to bring a couple closer.
Imagine your perfect day, and share it with your partner over a meal. Discuss it in as much detail as possible so that you reveal information about your likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams. If you can, try to plan some version of each other’s perfect days that you can experience together.
When researchers wanted to facilitate closeness between strangers, they created a series of questions to help people get to know each other quickly. “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” is on the list of those questions. (You may have heard of this list from the popular New York Times story, “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.”) The reason the questions bring people closer is that they force people to reveal a little something about themselves. Talking about your perfect day is a form of self-disclosure and can help you forge a deeper connection with your partner.
Find just a few minutes with your partner in a quiet space. Have a one-minute timer ready. Now follow these steps:
Stand and face each other.
Each of you should place your right hand on the other’s chest, just over the heart.
Bring your left hand to your own chest and cover your partner’s hand.
One of you will need to let go for a second to start the timer.
Spend the next minute looking into each other’s eyes as your hands rest on each other’s hearts and hands.
Try not to giggle or speak. Be mindful of each other’s breathing. Be present and quiet together. When the timer sounds, take a breath. Discuss how it felt to experience this nonverbal connection with each other.
Relationship researchers know that eye contact and touch create feelings of closeness. To study the effect of mutual gaze on romantic feelings, 168 undergraduate students in two studies were paired with someone they didn’t know. They were assigned to various experiment groups including a group told to gaze into each other’s eyes for two minutes. Some groups looked at each other’s hands, while others stared at each other and counted blinks. The students who looked into each other’s eyes reported significantly higher feelings of affection.
Other research shows that physical touch is crucial in creating and strengthening relationships, and it’s associated with higher relationship and partner satisfaction. Conflicts are more quickly resolved when one partner hugs, holds hands with or kisses the other. Whether you do the hands-on-hearts challenge just once or several times, remember that eye contact and touch are a powerful combination for forging a deeper connection with your partner.
Write down three things about your partner for which you feel grateful. Take a moment to read what you wrote about each other. Are you surprised by your partner’s feelings? Talk about these moments of gratitude and how they make you feel more connected to each other.
Showing gratitude on a daily basis is a common mindfulness practice proven to boost happiness, help us get better sleep and even reduce illness. Gratitude exercises also can make us feel closer to our romantic partners, strengthen our friendships and even make us better colleagues at work.
Grateful couples are more satisfied in their relationships and feelings of gratitude can even predict whether couples stay together or break up. One study called gratitude “a booster shot” for romantic relationships. The bottom line is this: The more you practice gratitude toward your partner, the more connected you’ll feel.
This story was adapted from the 7-Day Love Challenge originally published in June 2019
Photographs by Samantha Casolari for The New York Times. Illustrations by Daniel Salmieri. Produced by Hang Do Thi Duc, Christy Harmon, and Jaspal Riyait.