It seems as though there is a fairly standard list of New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, pay off credit card debt, and quit smoking/drinking. Perhaps you’ve gone beyond this list and added things like: spend less time on Facebook or watching TV, get organized, find a better job, fix up the house, stop procrastinating, etc.
Oddly (to us, anyways), although resolutions typically emphasize physical and mental health, they generally ignore relationship health. To address this oversight, here is list of 7 scientifically-validated ways you can improve your relationships:
1. Don’t Be a Nag – Focus on changing yourself rather than your partner. Those who focus on changing their partners are less successful at improving their overall relationship quality. Rather, relationship quality increases most when partners make self-directed improvements.1
2. What Doesn’t Kill You… – Rather than get bent out of shape over stressful experiences early in your relationship, embrace them. Experiencing moderately stressful experiences can be beneficial because they allow couples to practice important skills such as problem solving and partner support.2
3. Phone It In – Use the fancy new smartphone you received over the holidays to give your partner a call. That’s right, an actual phone call…in which you have an actual conversation. Novel, eh? Partners who talk more to each other on the phone experience greater certainty about their relationships, more love, and more commitment compared to those who speak less to their partners.3
4. If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say – Be sure to spend time validating your partner’s experiences, especially the stressful ones. In a recent study, participants underwent a stressful task during which they attempted to complete complex math problems. When their partners were ‘invalidating’ (e.g., their feedback was erratic or inappropriate, and trivialized the experience) participants’ heart rates increased and they had more negative feelings.4 So be nice.
5. Work it Out – As you would expect, when couples experience more serious relationship problems, they employ a range of strategies to address the issues. Yet, when an individual believes that there are barriers to leaving the relationship, the use of problem solving strategies diminishes. This is not ideal because the person not only feels stuck in the relationship, but is also less capable of fixing the problems in the relationship. So whether there are barriers or not, it is important to use strategies that can help the relationship improve.5
6. Have Reasonable Expectations – Believing that partners can change and improve is generally a good thing. However, research suggests that people who believe this (researchers call them “incrementalists”) may be overly optimistic about their partners’ ability to change (after all, change is difficult). Consequently, incrementalists may be more distrustful of partners who are not able to change (e.g, they may not think they are actually trying).6
7. Talk More Openly About Sex – A study of over 100 couples revealed that partners who communicate more openly about sex report more relationship and sexual satisfaction. Communication and sexual satisfaction are more strongly linked in couples who have been in their relationships longer.7
1Hira, S. N., & Overall, N. C. (2011). Improving intimate relationships: Targeting the partner versus changing the self. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(5), 610-633. doi:10.1177/0265407510388586
2Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1050-1067. doi:10.1037/a0023809
3Jin, B., & Peña, J. F. (2010). Mobile communication in romantic relationships: Mobile phone use, relational uncertainty, love, commitment, and attachment styles. Communication Reports, 23(1), 39-51. doi: 10.1080/0893421100359874
4Shenk, C. E., & Fruzzetti, A. E. (2011). The impact of validating and invalidating responses on emotional reactivity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30(2), 163-183. doi:10.1521/jscp.2011.30.2.163
5Frye, N. E. (2011). Responding to problems: The roles of severity and barriers. Personal Relationships, 18(3), 471-486. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01313.x
6Kammrath, L. K., & Peetz, J. (in press). You promised you’d change: How incremental and entity theorists react to a romantic partner’s promised change attempts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.015
7Montesi, J. L., Fauber, R. L., Gordon, E. A., & Heimberg, R. G. (2011). The specific importance of communicating about sex to couples’ sexual and overall relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(5), 591-609. doi:10.1177/0265407510386833
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.