A 4-step maintenance plan to help keep your relationship going strong

A 4-step maintenance plan to help keep your relationship going strong


Early on, relationships are easy. Everything is new and exciting. You go on dates, take trips, spend time together and intentionally cultivate experiences that allow your relationship to grow.

Then, somewhere along the way, life happens.

One study on married couples in their 30s and 40s found that their marital quality declined over the course of a year, in terms of love, passion, satisfaction, intimacy and commitment. Too often, people shrug their shoulders and convince themselves this is just how it goes. Switching to relationship autopilot feels justifiable when you’re short on time, low on energy and must focus on other priorities like careers and kids.

This is when doubt can creep in and tempt you to hit the reset button.

But maybe you’re being too hard on a perfectly good relationship. Every couple experiences ups and downs, and even the very best relationships take effort.

Rather than getting out, it’s time to get to work. Whether your relationship is already stuck in a rut, or you’re trying to avoid ending up in one, most people need to focus more on what happens between “I do” and “I don’t want to be with you anymore.” As a relationship scientist, I suggest the following four psychology research-based strategies to kickoff your relationship maintenance plan.

1. Use boredom as a pivot point

No one raises their hand and says, “Sign me up for a boring relationship.” But boredom serves a purpose. Like your phone indicating your battery is low, boredom is an early warning system that your relationship needs a recharge.

At different times, all relationships experience boredom. Psychology researcher Cheryl Harasymchuk and colleagues have explored how people react. For example, to turn things around when you’re bored, do you fall back on things that are familiar and make you feel self-assured, like taking a walk around the neighborhood? Or do you choose growth-enhancing activities – like going for a hike on a new trail in an unfamiliar park – to mix things up?

It turns out that study participants preferred growth-enhancing activities when they were bored, and when given a chance to plan a date, they incorporated more novelty into those outings. Rather than resigning yourself to boredom’s inevitability – “This is just how relationships are” – use boredom as a call to action.

2. Keep dating

Rather than wait for boredom to strike, couples would be wise to be more proactive. It’s a simple as continuing to date. Early in relationships, couples prioritize these one-on-one outings, but eventually begin to coast, just when the relationship could use an extra boost.

To recapture that early relationship magic, research shows that couples should engage in new, challenging and interesting activities. Rather than sitting at staring at your phones, couples should break their routine and try something different. It could be as simple as trying a new restaurant, or even a new dish at a favorite place.

Not only does branching out counteract boredom, but trying new things helps you grow as a person. All of this spills over into the relationship, increasing levels of passion, satisfaction and commitment.

In one study, researchers asked married couples either to play games like Jenga, Monopoly, Scrabble and UNO, or take an art class together. All couples increased their levels of oxytocin – the so-called “cuddle hormone” which helps partners bond. But the art class couples had larger oxytocin increases and touched each other more, perhaps because the activity was newer and further outside their comfort zone. That novelty may encourage them to rely on each other for assurance.

3. Movie nights

Not looking to dig out your oil paints? Here’s a lower key option: Grab a spot on the couch and have a couples movie night. Over the course of a month, researchers asked some couples to watch and discuss a romantic comedy such as “When Harry Met Sally,” while others did an intense relationship workshop. Fast forward three years, and the movie watchers were less likely to have broken up.

It probably isn’t just taking in any film, but rather that watching a romantic story gives couples a less threatening way to discuss relationship issues. It may also help them see their relationship differently. That’s important, because research from psychologist Eli Finkel and others shows that viewing your own relationship through completely neutral eyes helps couples hold off declines in marital quality.

4. Finding the bright spots

Activities are great, but you also need to do daily maintenance.

There’s an old adage in psychology research that “bad is stronger than good.” For relationships, that often means focusing on what’s wrong, while overlooking what’s right. Talk about self-defeating.

Of course, you can just as easily find the ways your relationship is thriving. Be more intentional about noticing your relationship’s bright spots. Not only will you appreciate your partner more, but you can use what’s going well to help improve less bright areas.

Focus on what’s actually going well.
AllGo/Unsplash, CC BY

Too often, people wait for something to break before trying to fix it. Adopting a maintenance mentality can more proactively help your relationship.

One new study tested a way to help couples in already healthy relationships. The researchers’ intervention had couples complete research-based positive psychology activities over four weeks such as:

  • Write the story of their relationship, focusing on the positives, then share with their partner
  • Write a letter of gratitude to their partner
  • Identify their partner’s strengths and their strengths as a couple
  • Create a list of positive moments or activities partners want to share with each other. Pick one, and plan a time to do it
  • Create a desired happiness chart and discuss what small relationship tweaks can help make it a reality.

At the end of the month, compared to couples on the study’s waitlist, participants reported more positive emotions, better relationship functioning and improved communication. Another month later, their average relationship functioning remained better than that of the comparison group.

Few people enjoy cleaning, doing laundry or mowing the lawn. Yet, if you neglect those tasks, life quickly falls into disrepair. Your relationship is just the same. Rather than thinking about replacements when your relationship shows signs of wear, invest the time and energy into a little maintenance. Using any or all of these easy-to-implement strategies should not only help a relationship survive, but hopefully even thrive.

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Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Professor of Psychology, Monmouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Your relationship may be better than you think – find the knot

Your relationship may be better than you think – find the knot


There’s an old saying, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” In other words, before you give up, take matters into your own hands and try a little harder.

As a psychology researcher, I believe this adage applies to relationships, too. Before you let go, look for the “knots” that might save you from accidentally letting a great relationship slip from your grasp. Relationship science suggests that the problem is that people tend to overemphasize the negative and underappreciate the positive when looking at their romantic partners.

If you could build the perfect relationship, what would it look like? Perhaps more importantly, how does your current relationship stack up? Expectations for today’s relationships are higher than ever. Now that relationships are a choice, mediocrity isn’t acceptable. It’s all or nothing, and no one wants to settle.

The secret to avoiding settling seems simple: have high standards and demand only the very best. Researchers refer to people who are pickier than others and always want the absolute best possible option as maximizers. Their counterparts are satisficers – those satisfied once quality surpasses a minimum threshold of acceptability. For them, “good enough” is perfectly fine. As long as their relationship exceeds their predetermined benchmarks for “high quality,” satisficers are content.

Maximizer personalities will tend to exhaust all options and explore many possibilities to secure the flawless partner. You might think that sounds ideal, even noble, almost like common sense. But there are hidden downsides. Call it the myth of maximization, because the research reveals that maximizers report more regret and depression and feel threatened by others whom they perceive as doing better. Maximizers also experience lower self-esteem and less optimism, happiness and life satisfaction. And they prefer reversible decisions or outcomes that are not absolute or final.

See the problem? In long-term relationships, people tend to prefer more of a “‘til death do us part” approach rather than a “’til I find something better” tactic. Overall, the implication for your relationship is clear: The continuous pursuit of perfection could be fine for a car, but in your relationship it may result in failing to recognize the truly great relationship that’s right in front of you for what it is. Impossibly high standards can make an excellent relationship seem average.

You may also undervalue your relationship by being too quick to identify imperfections, notice the negatives and find problems. Blame what psychologists call the negativity bias, which is a tendency to pay attention to the bad or negative aspects of an experience.

In other words, when your relationship is going well, it doesn’t register. You take it for granted. But problems? They capture your attention. The bickering, insensitive comments, forgotten chores, the messes and the inconveniences – all stand out because they deviate from the easily overlooked happy status quo.

This tendency is so pronounced that when a relationship doesn’t have any major issues, research suggests that people inflate small problems into bigger ones. Rather than be thankful for the relative calm, people manufacture problems where none previously existed. You could be your own worst enemy without even realizing it.

Time to recalibrate. The key is separating the critical from the inconsequential in order to distinguish minor issues from real problems. Identifying the true dealbreakers will allow you to save your energy for real problems, and allow the minor stuff to simply fade away.

Data from a representative sample of over 5,000 Americans, ranging in age from 21 to over 76, identified the top 10 relationship dealbreakers:

  1. Disheveled or unclean appearance
  2. Lazy
  3. Too needy
  4. Lacks a sense of humor
  5. Lives more than three hours away
  6. Bad sex
  7. Lacks self-confidence
  8. Too much TV/video games
  9. Low sex drive
  10. Stubborn

Beyond that list, there are certainly annoyances that can become dealbreakers in otherwise generally healthy relationships. And if your partner disrespects, hurts or abuses you, those are behaviors that shouldn’t be ignored and should rightly end your relationship.

In a follow-up study, researchers asked participants to consider both dealbreakers and dealmakers – that is, qualities that are especially appealing. When determining whether a relationship was viable, it turned out the dealbreakers carried more weight. The negativity bias strikes again. The fact that people tend to focus more on the breakers than the makers is further evidence that we’re not giving some aspects of our relationship enough credit.

To help you better appreciate your partner’s good qualities, consider the qualities individuals find most desirable in a marriage partner.

What have you been missing in your relationship? Surely there are boxes that your partner checks that you’ve neglected to notice. Start giving credit where credit is due.

In fact, some studies suggest you should give your partner even more credit than she or he might deserve. Instead of being realistic, give your partner the benefit of the doubt, with an overly generous appraisal. Would you be lying to yourself? Sure, a little bit. But research shows that these types of positive illusions help the relationship by decreasing conflict while increasing satisfaction, love and trust.

A positive attitude toward your partner can be a partly self-fulfilling prophecy.
Alex Holyoake/Unsplash, CC BY

Holding overly optimistic views of your partner convinces you of their value, which reflects well on you – you’re the one who has such a great partner, after all. Your rose-colored opinions also make your partner feel good and give them a good reputation to live up to. They won’t want to let you down so they’ll try to fulfill your positive prophecy. All of which benefits your relationship.

It’s time to stop being overly critical of your relationship. Instead find the knots, the parts of your relationship you’ve been taking for granted that will help you hold on. If you know where to look and what to appreciate, you may just realize there are a lot more reasons to happily hold onto your relationship than you thought.The Conversation

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Professor of Psychology, Monmouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.