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In hour-long therapy sessions, I help couples increase connection.
At dinner parties, among parents at my kids’ soccer games, even on vacation, people ask for help with their relationships. The little-known secret is you don’t always need the help of a therapist to have a great partnership.
It’s within reach—all 168 hours of every week—just by adopting some of these simple tips:
1. Ask yourself, “What’s it like to be in a relationship with me?” When you are upset in your relationship, you probably blame your partner. While your gripes may be valid, how do you show up for the one you love? This can be humbling.
I ask about my husband’s day, take more on if he needs rest, give him space for his hobbies, and respond to his feelings. I also frantically pick up around the house, cook, clean, and check off all my to-dos. By the end of the day, I’m spent.
This leaves me either resentful that I’ve done too much, thinking what he has done, or sad that I don’t have energy for him or our kids. On better days, I see that I push myself too hard and take a break. On worse days, I reprimand myself you should know better. Reflecting in this way can increase compassion for ourselves and our partner as well as clarify feelings and unmet needs.
2. Ask for what you need. If I want my husband to start dinner before I get home, I ask him so the oven is on and veggies are prepped when I walk in. Many couples ask, “Why do I have to say what I need?” as if mind-reading is a sign of love. When we make clear to our partner what we need, and they respond by giving it, that’s love.
3. Communicate positive feelings when you feel them. Leave a voice mail; send a text; write an email. You might even write a letter! A few weeks ago, struggling to tear off a paper towel, my husband asked, “Who bought this paper towel holder? It’s awful.” “I did,” I replied. He paused and said, “Thank you for buying it. I really appreciate it. But I hate it.” I cracked up.
Later, I called him and left a voice mail, “Thanks for the laugh about the paper towel holder. It is bad. Thank you for working on being honest but not critical. I love you.” Share when the feel-good moment strikes! (And yes, I replaced the paper towel holder.)
4. Do something with your partner that they love to do. I might go to a Yankees game, play cards, or watch “Moonlight,” as those activities bring my husband joy. At home, I set out his favorite snacks (chips, honey roasted peanuts) and drinks (La Croix, red wine). When we’re following a University of Virginia game, I am all in! I cheer, wear the T-shirt, and even walk in a clockwise motion (his superstition) for good luck. When someone joins us in something we’re passionate about, it shows they care about us.
5. Show your passions. I started writing poetry in the pandemic, but only let my husband in on it a year later. Sitting at the dining room table one evening, I read a poem to my husband about our first date. My voice cracked and my face got hot. He responded, “Wow, hon, that’s really good. I thought I was just going to thank you for sharing, but that was actually good.”
Now he encourages my writing. And he gives honest feedback. When you let your partner in on your passions, it gives you both an opportunity for connection. If your partner doesn’t know what you love, let them know. And if you don’t know what your partner loves, ask.
6. Listen even when—especially when—their words are hard to hear. Years ago, in couples therapy, my eyes teared up and I covered my face with my hands. Our therapist asked, “Jess, what’s happening?” It felt like a punch to the gut when I realized I hadn’t been listening to my husband, for years, about his dream of moving North to a rural area. My chronic response was, “You’ll get over it, that’s not happening.” I was scared to move.
Once I could deal with my fear, we could have a conversation, rather than an argument. Listening is key to creating closeness.
7. Greet the one you love. Hug, kiss, say goodbye, say I love you, say have a great day, leave a note, leave a chocolate, leave flowers. If you’ve left in a rush, text a sweet note, an emoji, or your avatar. My husband and I often exchange the smiley face with red hearts for eyes or the one blowing a kiss. I feel thought of and know I’m his number one. Any bitmoji of my husband is a win.
I laugh when I see him in cartoon form coming out of a bouquet of flowers or dressed up like a dog. When my husband has the garage door open for me before I pull in the driveway, he’s anticipating my arrival and making things easier for me. And all he did was push a button.
8. Give each other space. Time spent as individuals is just as important as time spent together. A trip with friends where I talk, laugh, exercise, and get a massage fills my cup. After focusing on myself, I walk through the door with big hugs for my husband and kids. My husband also takes trips on his own for work and play. Time away from family life helps us remember who we are. It also gives us time to miss each other. When you get space, you return with more to give.
9. Touch. My husband’s hand on my back communicates that he’s got me. It could be a kiss, a hug, holding hands, or a caress of the cheek. We communicate through touch. It soothes our nervous system, releases oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), and signals that we are safe and loved. While sex is a wonderful way to connect, it’s important that physical closeness doesn’t always lead there. Talk about your preferences and boundaries.
10. Check in daily. One couple sets aside time every morning to share coffee and talk. They value this time together in their busy lives raising kids and managing careers. Aim for a minimum daily check-in of 15 minutes.
Relationships are made up of many moments strung together over time. There’s an opportunity in every interaction to show up for your partner and strengthen your relationship.