Marriage may be a dying tradition as research consistently shows that the decline in marriage is due in part to the notion that marriage is no longer a recipe for happiness. Statistics shows that marriage rates declined by 3.5% in 2013—the latest year for which such figures are available. High divorce rates, complaints about marriage in popular media, and the increasingly high demands couples place on their marriages.
But a long-term relationship doesn’t have to be endlessly taxing, nor should it be a source of misery. The truth is that relationships are what you make them. It’s not what your partner does that mattes most; it’s how you react. You really can create a happier relationship, even without making any changes in your partner. The critical insight is realizing that you are in control, and that your behavior has every bit as much to do with the happiness of your relationship as your partner’s. Here are five strategies that can improve any relationship.
Do Something Nice Every Day
If you want kindness, you often have to offer it. When you are kind to your partner, he or she is more likely to be kind to you. Equally important is the fact that kindness will improve your partner’s quality of life, and ultimately, your relationship. Commit to doing one kind act for your partner each day, no matter what. You might cook dinner, do the laundry, send a love letter, or sneak in a few romantic texts.
Focus On and Name the Positive
Humans gravitate toward the negative. It helps us ward off threats before they escalate, but it also causes us to be way too negative with those we love the most. Odds are good you criticize your partner more than you compliment. Remedy this by committing to giving your partner at least five compliments each day. Not only will it boost your partner’s self-esteem; it will also remind you of why you fell in love with this person in the first place, potentially bringing the spark back to your relationship. And, of course, once your partner sees you doing this, he or she might opt to do it for you, too.
Abandon the Four Horsemen
Relationship expert John Gottman is so good at predicting divorce that he can do it with 90% accuracy, even in the early stages of a courtship. His research suggests that four behaviors, more so than anything else, increase the odds of a divorce. He terms these behaviors the “four horsemen,” after the Biblical horsemen that foretold the apocalypse. If you really want a better relationship, it’s time to abandon these four behaviors:
- Criticizing your partner; Gottman says you need to give 20 compliments for every criticism.
- Stonewalling by avoiding discussion, leaving in the middle of discussion, or refusing to listen to your partner’s feelings.
- Defensiveness: If your partner has a complaint, don’t attack him or her. Take the concern seriously.
- Contempt is when you react to your partner with disgust or hatred. This approach minimizes your partner’s feelings and humanity, and includes such behaviors as eye-rolling, name-calling, and trying to “win” fights by saying or doing unkind things.
When you love someone, you see a lot of yourself in them. Next time you have a complaint about your partner, consider taking a long, hard look at yourself instead. For every complaint you have, find something about yourself you can work on. You may be surprised at how quickly this strategy improves not only your relationship, but also your career and social life.
Whether your partner is doing something specific that bothers you, or your relationship just doesn’t seem to have the spark it once did, it’s easy to fixate on how your partner is affecting your emotions. Much more challenging is seeing things from your partner’s perspective. Empathy is a game-changer in relationships. It can help you avoid saying hurtful things, quell anger, and even save a floundering marriage. For one week, commit to seeing everything from your partner’s perspective, without judging, criticizing, or getting angry. You may be surprised by how much your relationship changes as a result.