6 Expert tips to make your relationship stronger
Looking to improve your relationship in the new year? We asked a couple and psychosexual therapist for his top advice
2021 is officially over: sayonara, au revoir, buh-bye now. As we embark on a new year, it’s the ideal time to reflect on different aspects of your life and what—if anything—you want to change. If you’re in a relationship, it may be an opportunity to set new goals together.
“New Year is a symbolic time of new beginnings and traditionally it’s a time when we look back on our experiences of the old year and think about what we want to achieve,” says Geoff Lamb, couple and psychosexual therapist.
“We are also likely to have spent an extended holiday period in close contact with our partner and maybe our family as well. In addition to the joyous festivities, the holiday can show up the parts of our relationship which may have been obscured by the business of the normal working routine. You can revamp your relationship at any time of the year, but it’s good to take advantage of the opportunity for new beginnings the season provides us.”
Start a hobby together
When do you and your partner spend time together? Is it the hum-drum of washing the dishes at night or do you hang out outside of domestic drudgery? Finding a hobby that you both enjoy could be a way to bring you together and make some new memories.
“If you don’t have at least one already, and even if you do, activities and interests in common are a good way of spending time together,” suggests Lamb. “It’s important to remember that contact is the important thing.”
“Try not to get competitive with each other. Remember to emphasise the shared experience. If you do find yourself getting competitive, it’s a good idea to get curious about why this may be and better still to acknowledge and discuss it with your partner.”
Improve your communication
Communication is a huge deal, from the everyday check-ins to the long, challenging conversations. However, you might not be getting your message across in the best possible way. If you’re getting lost in translation, you may want to switch up the way you speak with your partner. Lamb suggests taking the following tips to do just that:
Tip 1: Keep things simple
“The important things which need to be communicated in a relationship—feelings and needs—really are that simple,” says Lamb. Make sure you’re focusing on the main point, rather than straying to different topics and bringing in too many different perspectives.
Tip 2: Focus on your feelings
Worried about how your partner will react? Take a deep breath and say what you’ve got to say anyway. “Focus on your feelings rather than either your partner’s possible reactions in advance or their actual reactions in the present,” says Lamb. “Keep the focus on your feelings rather than on your partner’s behaviour. Start sentences with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’.”
Tip 3: Don’t over-explain yourself
When you think you’re not getting through to your partner, you may be tempted to repeat yourself. However, doing so could mean that your partner switches off. “Long explanations and justifications create distance rather than closeness, which is the whole purpose of communication in couples, so they’re best avoided,” says Lamb.
Tip 4: Leave your preconceptions at the door
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is believing that your partner should respond in a certain way. Take them as they are—not how you think they should be. “Don’t compare your partner with other people or with the ‘average, reasonable’ person,” says Lamb.
Become a better listener
Conversations are a two-way street. It doesn’t matter how good of a talker you are, if you can’t listen well enough. Take this chance to upgrade your listening skills once and for all.
Tip 1: Don’t take things personally
Are you getting offended? “Don’t take anything your partner says—especially when they’re angry or upset—personally,” says Lamb. “This is really difficult, especially when our partner is attacking, judging or criticising us. What makes it easier is when we focus on our partner rather than on ourselves.”
Tip 2: Take your partner seriously
“This may seem to contradict tip one, but the difference is important. However well or badly they’re expressing it, what your partner is saying is meaningful to them,” says Lamb. Take it seriously by focusing on what might be important to your partner that they’re trying to communicate to you. That way, you’re moving in the direction of closeness.”
Tip 3: Don’t try to solve their problem
Spoiler: You don’t have to solve every issue. “Your partner may, very rarely, invite you to do this, but mostly what they need is for you to understand and accept their feelings,” says Lamb. “To be able to sit with an unsolved problem is another situation which can make us feel uncomfortable, but that discomfort belongs with us rather than with our partner.”
Make time for sex and intimacy
Sex and intimacy bonds couples. If you’re in a long-term relationship, you may find that the passion has started to wane. That’s normal. You’re not going to have the same lust for one another after years together. Despite that, there are ways you can boost your sex life.
“Making time for sex also needs desire and I can understand that combining this with planning can seem contradictory,” says Lamb. “One way of resolving this is to see the planning as creating a ‘space’ in which sex could be a possibility. It can also be helpful to broaden the definition of sex to include any kind of physical sensuous contact. This takes the pressure off both partners to ‘perform’.”
“Creating the right environment is something that is often recommended. Having a private comfortable space, free of distractions—especially phones—is definitely a must. Some couples find that taking penetrative sex off the agenda can be freeing, especially if there are different levels of desire or it is some time since they’ve had sex.”
Plan a regular date night
One of the most exciting things about meeting someone new is heading out on dates together. You might go to see a film, head out for dinner, or go bowling. It doesn’t matter. The point is that you’re spending time together and building something. Now that you’ve been with your partner a while, ensure that you still have some quality time together.
“Getting out of your familiar environment and away from work or domestic responsibilities can rejuvenate a relationship,” suggests Lamb. “It can also be a way of spending unpressured time with your partner and it works well if the relationship is basically sound, but lacking in ‘spark’. What you have to remember though is that, unless you’re vigilant, the same dynamics will play out in the date as in the rest of your relationship.”
Avoid “phubbing” your partner
Smartphones are addictive. If your eyes light up every time a new notification appears on the screen, you’ll know that to be true. With a world of information and communication at your fingertips, it can be hard to give your partner the attention that they deserve.
Phubbing—or phone-snubbing—can be detrimental to your relationship. Research published in the Computers in Human Behaviour Journal suggests that this habit can lead to feelings of exclusion and reduced responsiveness and intimacy. The study found that this behaviour can also lead to conflict between partners and even jealousy. Taking some time away from your phone could help you reconnect with your partner in a new way.
Planning to make over your relationship this year? There are plenty of small and significant changes you can make. Consider the areas you want to improve, how you can better relate to your partner, and what aspects of your relationships you want to see flourish.
“The important thing about New Year’s resolutions in general, and as far as relationships are concerned, is to keep them positive,” says Lamb. “Thinking about what you’re going to do, rather than what you’re going to stop doing, is much more likely to succeed. Resolving to do things that are within your repertoire is also less likely to fail.”
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