I used these 5 tips from a marriage therapist to keep my relationship flourishing
A long-term relationship goes through many stages. After almost a year with my boyfriend, I’ve noticed a shift happen: Date-night jeans have turned into loungewear sweatpants, and our time together is not always meaningful and romantic. The thing is, we just moved in together two months ago, and while I’m adjusting to our new cohabitation (it’s new and good!), I can’t help but feel a wave of anxiety about the inevitable future state of our relationship when the honeymoon phase dies down and you have to find new ways to sustain a strong and healthy relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy and in love with my partner, but after we started living together, I became worried: Are we going to exchange our exciting conversations and romantic evenings for nights on the couch, while we stare at our cellphones, before going to bed separately? I’d love to be a glass-half-full kind-of girl, but sometimes, I worry the water will eventually spill over.
So to get advice on how to keep my relationship flourishing, I spoke with licensed marriage and family therapist, Jelisha Gatling, who believes that working on your partnership before things get bad is a great way to ensure the stability and overall health of the love that you and your partner share. “It’s like catching cancer early before it spreads. A skilled couples therapist can suss out dynamics within a [relationship] that may exacerbate into a bigger issue later on,” says Gatling.
With this in mind, I decided to ask Gatling what her top five tips are to help maintain a flourishing relationship and give them a go for a month. Here’s how her tips influenced our partnership.
Five easy ways to refresh a stale relationship.
1 Make daily deposits in your relationship bank.
Gatling equates a romantic relationship to a bank account; every person should be making regular deposits. A deposit is something you put in to strengthen your relationship. It’s making your partner that cup of coffee when they’re running late, or giving them that back rub after a long day. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; even a small act will make a difference.
After speaking with Gatling, my boyfriend and I try to continually ask ourselves, “What can I do to make my partner’s day a little better?” And we can already tell the difference. For instance, when my boyfriend knows I’ll be starving after a workout class, he’ll have a smoothie waiting for me.
Offering to pick up dinner, making the bed, or leaving the lights on when your partner is coming home late are all small things you can do to grow your relationship bank account. But make sure to do this when you and your partner already have enough cushion in your savings. “The best time to do this [is] when things are going well.” Gatling explains, “This provides a cushion for when external stressors impede on the relationship. It’s like having a savings account for when you get sick, and you’ve used all of your sick time. You still have money to pay your bills, and you don’t have to go without.”
2Learn your and your partner’s love languages.
While Dr. Gary Chapman wrote the book, The Five Love Languages, to describe the five ways in which people communicate love, Gatling explained that we tend to automatically speak our language and expect our partner to “hear” it. Instead, it’s important to learn your partner’s love language to intentionally speak and give the kind of love your S.O. will understand and not miss or overlook.
After a little prodding, my boyfriend and I filled out the love language quiz online, and while my primary love language is quality time, his is words of affirmation. We shared our results with one another afterwards, and I realized how much he appreciates when I compliment or voice my gratitude to him. For example, after spending hours assembling our photo wall in our new apartment, I made sure to tell him how impressed I was with his commitment to getting it all done (and I really was!).
3Ask this important question every day.
I started asking my boyfriend at the end of every day, “What went well today?” Gatling says she starts most of her couple’s therapy sessions this way and finds this takes many people aback. Instead of complaining about all of the day’s frustrations, which I’m definitely guilty of, this question readjusts your thinking. I’ve found asking my boyfriend this question often leads to interesting conversations that last throughout our dinner together. Who knows, we may even start a gratitude jar next.
Gatling says asking this question can also prevent “dumping,” which is a back-and-forth discussion about all of the things that went wrong in your day. And if not careful, can spiral into a negative conversation, which can result in the same kind of energy. “Asking ‘What went well?’ instead of ‘How was your day?’ puts forward positive-focused energy and infuses that into the relationship,” she says.
4Schedule weekly date nights.
While living together certainly has its perks since my boyfriend and I are both freelancing, there’s a difference between being in the same room and actually spending quality time together. For this reason, Gatling said we need to intentionally set aside time to connect with our loved one. The best way to do this is by going on date nights if it works within your budget. For us, we spend at least one night per week getting out of the apartment. For instance, when we were in the throes of unpacking last month, we made a concerted effort to take a break and go out and grab a drink. It was a much-needed reprieve from the stress of moving.
Plus, date night doesn’t need to be an expensive venture. Gatling had some unique ideas that can be done at home, such as naked scrabble and cooking dinner together in the nude. “[The date] doesn’t have to be sexual, but being in the nude and doing something together feels intimate,” she says.
If you’re not into being naked (maybe I’ll give it a try in 2020), there are tons of fun games you could play that are designed for couples. Gatling suggested we try A Box of Dates or Our Moments Couples.
After playing the game, I learned new things about my boyfriend that I never would have known if not prompted by these cards. I’d share, but they’re private…
5Take time for your own self-care.
Gatling informed me that what you do for yourself is just as important as what you do as a couple for the betterment of your relationship. “If you aren’t feeling balanced and healthy, then you’re significantly less likely to be present in your relationship and are more susceptible to projecting things onto your partner,” says Gatling. “A lack of self-care doesn’t lend itself to conflict resolution or effective communication.”
My habits changed when we first moved in together. I was exercising almost every day before living with my boyfriend, but I would forgo my morning workouts to hang out with him in our apartment. But working out is therapy for me. It helps with my stress management and without it, I’m irritable, which isn’t good for me or my partner. But I’ve gotten back into my daily routine, and my boyfriend even joined me. Eating well, getting adequate sleep and enough physical activity are so important for not only your actual health, but also your relationship health.
Keeping a relationship flourishing requires making a concerted effort, every day. And after a month of both of us working together to integrate these five tips into our lives, I’m happy to report that my anxiety has subsided and our bond continues to strengthen. Of course, there are days we do forget to ask, “What went well?” but it’s a work in progress. Our next date night is for our one-year anniversary, and I’m ready to take on the next year armed with these helpful relationship tools.