Everyone wants the best relationship possible. Yet, no relationship is perfect.
We all have room for improvement.
But how? What should couples do? You could read the scientific literature or try to sort through a bunch of questionable advice on the Internet. It’s overwhelming, which just begs you to do nothing and simply hope for the best. Unfortunately, that puts your relationship at risk.
Your relationship deserves better.
The good news is that relationship improvement can be simple, with strategies falling into 3 categories:
- Do More
- Demand Less
- Better Appreciate What You Have
Which type fits you best?
If you’re a “Do More” type, you’re likely the type of person who sees a problem and wants to attack it head-on. Perhaps, you have a hard time just sitting there and want to do something, anything. You may be the type who likes to dive in and fix what’s wrong. Or, you’re someone who wants to get ahead of problems by actively looking at what you can add or improve. You’re willing to put in the time and energy. Or, as Nicholas Sparks wrote in The Notebook, “So, it’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be really hard. We’re gonna have to work at this every day…” And that’s okay. The work makes it worth it. Here are a few ways to do that.
The 4-Hour Relationship. First, doing more doesn’t require a tremendous amount of time or effort. Simply making your partner and your relationship a priority, for as little as 4 hours a week, can have major benefits. That’s especially true if your date nights are New, Interesting, Challenging, and Exciting (N.I.C.E.) because research shows that activities with those qualities promote greater relationship quality (Aron et al., 2022).
Do More In Bed. If your sexual satisfaction isn’t where you want it to be, doing more helps here too. In particular, research shows that engaging in greater sexual/erotic variety increases sexual desire and arousal (Morton & Gorzalka, 2015). That’s important because combating familiarity and potential boredom can increase sexual satisfaction and decrease the likelihood of cheating. Win-win.
Build Relationships Skills. Here are fantastic relationship skills to build: communication, conflict resolution, how well you know your partner, how well you know yourself, life management, stress management, and sexual/romantic skills. (Epstein et al., 2013). Cultivating these key competencies is not only possible, but research shows that being better at these skills is associated with better relationship functioning. As you can see, most of those are about self-improvement. A better you for both of you.
Perhaps you’re a bit more laid back and prefer a more indirect approach, or don’t have the time or energy to add more into your life. Sometimes the answer isn’t to do more but to want less. This isn’t saying you should have no standards, just be more realistic with your expectations. Those who gravitate toward the “demand less” strategy realize that some of their relationship’s friction may result from how they interpret or evaluate their situation. This approach realizes that, as Hamlet said, “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words, what ails your relationship might have more to do with your perspective than the relationship itself.
Soulmate Solution? Thinking of your partner as your soulmate sounds romantic, but it also creates a potentially impossible standard for your partner to live up to. Why? Soulmates are allegedly your perfect match. The one person who is best suited for you, the person you’re destined to be with (Knee & Petty, 2013). When that person fails to live up to your lofty soulmate-level criteria, it creates doubt. Is this the right person for me? The best, most perfect relationship? If not, your relationship can feel like an imposter. Much of that uncertainty is unfair. Rather, it’s important to realize that soulmates are more mythical than magical. Realizing that will help you see more of your partner’s positives. If you look for them, they’re there.
Manage Your Expectations. In the movie Up in the Air, Anna Kendricks’ character Natalie has an extensive and oddly specific list of what she wants in a partner and self-righteously proclaims, “I just don’t want to settle.” Vera Farmiga’s more experienced character Alex explains that not checking every box on your “perfect partner wish list” isn’t a failure. Unrealistic expectations, however, will absolutely fail you because they set your partner and your relationship up for constant disappointment. Instead, demand less by realizing you’re not perfect, which makes it perfectly reasonable that your partner isn’t either. Having exceedingly high expectations and always wanting more can result in not appreciating the great partner you have.
Don’t Go Looking for Problems. Even if your expectations are properly calibrated, you may still be overly critical of your partner and relationship. We have a natural negativity bias that encourages us to pay more attention to the bad aspects of an experience (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). One way that happens is by engaging in “problemicity” or finding problems where they don’t exist. In fact, research suggests that when your relationship doesn’t have any big problems, you tend to overemphasize the smaller issues (Levari et al., 2018). An easy way to demand less is by not manufacturing drama and seeking out problems.
A word of caution…demanding less doesn’t mean you should negate your expectations. Lower expectations can boost happiness, but going overboard will surely backfire. If you lower your standards too far, even an objectively terrible relationship can seem acceptable. Keep your expectations reasonable and realistic.
Better Appreciate What You Have
Finding time to “do more” can feel like too much work, and you may feel that your expectations are fair. Now what? You can still improve your relationship, with perhaps the easiest strategy of them all: cherish your current relationship. The best fixes are sometimes the simplest ones. As Alan Kay said, “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” Time to get smarter about your relationship.
Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude. Sometimes relationship improvement is as simple as being more thankful for what you already have. Take stock of everything about your relationship that is easy, comfortable, uncomplicated, stable, and predictable. We take so much for granted in our relationship, especially these basic building blocks. But, they are each fundamental to your relationship’s success. Something as simple as expressing gratitude about them (or other positive aspects of your relationship) improves relationship quality (Algoe et al., 2013).
Celebrate the Positives. It’s also okay to take that appreciation one step further by doing even more to highlight the good parts. Researchers call this capitalization, and find that savoring the good news and positive moments in a relationship boosts each partner’s well-being and self-esteem (Gable & Reis, 2010). Capitalization also increases the relationship’s closeness, satisfaction, intimacy, and commitment. Ultimately, capitalizing should be easy because good relationships have a lot more positives than negatives. We just have to take the time to notice.
Use Your Illusions. Now you may wonder if you can take all of this gratitude and positivity too far. What if your partner and relationship really aren’t as great as you’re making it seem? What if you’re wrong, or worse, lying to yourself? That’s ok. In fact, holding positive illusions, whereby you see your relationship as better than it is, actually helps the relationship (Murray et al., 1996). Those overly generous assessments give our partner a goal to aim for that encourages their improvement (e.g., “My partner thinks I’m really wonderful, so I better make sure I am so they’re not disappointed.”), which ultimately benefits the relationship.
Now you may be wondering, “Which of these three strategies is best?” The simple answer is whichever one works best for you. It really depends on how you like to approach problems.
- If you like to take action, do more.
- Do you tend to be picky and have (too) high standards? Demand less.
- Feel like you simply need to take a step back and reevaluate? Take a moment to better appreciate what you have.
Ultimately, the best strategy is the one you’re most likely to use. Pick the one that’s going to let you get started right away. Once that starts working, you’ll build some positive momentum that you can use to adopt additional strategies. Mix and match, or stick with the one that works best. The only thing that matters is that you’re working to make your relationship better.
Though we all want to have a stronger relationship, knowing the best way to accomplish that is difficult. However, what makes it easier to implement is knowing you can simply do more, demand less, or better appreciate what you have. Whatever you pick, just do something. Your relationship’s future is too important to leave to chance.
Hope this helps,
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D. an award-winning professor, researcher, writer, and relationship expert. His TED talk and relationship programs have been enjoyed by millions worldwide. As a Love Strategies Instructor and Course Designer for Relationship Synergy, he shares insights from 25 years of experience studying the science of relationships to help women build a deeper, more meaningful romantic connection with their partner.
Algoe, S. B., Fredrickson, B. L., & Gable, S. L. (2013). The social functions of the emotion of gratitude via expression. Emotion, 13(4), 605–609. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032701
Aron, A., Lewandowski, G., Branand, B., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. (2022). Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of others in self: An updated review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221110630
Epstein, R., Warfel, R., Johnson, J., Smith, R., & McKinney, P. (2013) Which relationship skills count most?, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12 (4), 297-313, https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2013.836047
Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 42, pp. 195–257). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(10)42004-3
Knee, C. R., & Petty, K. N. (2013). Implicit theories of relationships: Destiny and growth beliefs. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 183–198). Oxford University Press.
Levari, D. E., Gilbert, D. T., Wilson, T. D., Sievers, B., Amodio, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (2018). Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment. Science, 360(6396), 1465–1467.
Morton, H., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2015). Role of partner novelty in sexual functioning: A review. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 41(6), 593–609. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2014.958788
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions in romantic relationships: Love is not blind, but prescient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(6), 1155–1180.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320.