Four Tips to Nurture a Relationship

How to tend to the care and feeding of romantic bonds

By Caitlin Crawshaw

February 13, 2023 •

Relationships take work, as mothers and advice columnists have long warned us, but modern life makes this tricky. Many of us are juggling some combination of work, school, parenting, caring for aging parents and housework, which can sap our time and energy.

But whether we’re dating someone new or approaching a golden anniversary, our partnerships can’t survive — let alone thrive — without nurturing. Thankfully, there’s lots of evidence-based strategies we can use to strengthen our romantic unions, as U of A family scientist Adam Galovan explains. Here are four tips to help anyone foster a happier, healthier relationship with their significant other.

Put ‘we’ before ‘me’

Our society emphasizes individual needs, but a me-first approach creates a competitive dynamic. “If there’s a winner, there’s a loser as well, and you don’t want that in relationships,” says Galovan, a researcher in the Department of Human Ecology.

In 2021, he co-authored a study of 615 couples in North America that showed people felt more connected in their relationships when they focused on being empathetic and kind to their partners. One way to do this is by responding warmly to your partner’s “bids for connection” — a concept coined by American psychologist John Gottman that refers to subtle requests for attention. If your partner initiates a conversation when you’re busy with something, acknowledge their effort, shake off the irritation and be gentle in explaining you’ll have to talk with them after you’ve filed the taxes or folded the laundry. At other times, it may be more important to acknowledge them and the pull you may feel to be kind and choose to spend time with them instead. Galovan refers to responding to this pull to do something for someone else as “ethical responsiveness,” which he argues is key to successful relationships.

Even if you feel your needs have been neglected, it’s often in the best interests of the relationship for you to meet your partner’s needs; research shows these gestures of goodwill are likely to be reciprocated by improving closeness. So if your spouse has had a bad day at work, consider doing the dishes for them or turning off the TV for a conversation. If they’ve stormed angrily into the house, try to approach them with compassion and curiosity instead of resentment. “My partner’s usually not like this. I wonder what’s going on?”

Cut out ‘technoference’

Technology has its uses, but misuse can interfere with the connection between partners (and with children, for that matter) — a term called “technoference.” Technology can reduce the amount and quality of time partners spend together. Even sexting, which can spice things up in the bedroom, is associated with relationship dissatisfaction, according to Galovan’s research.

No one is immune to technological disruption, as phones and tablets are carefully designed to reward our brains with small surges of dopamine to keep us coming back. To avoid this trap, Galovan recommends couples limit screen time and make technology completely off-limits during dinner and bedtime in order to create space to connect.

He also advises making a habit of looking up from your device to make eye contact when your partner enters the room. Not only does the gesture support connection, it can also bring us back to earth when we’ve fallen down the social media rabbit hole.

Go to bed when you’re angry

“Never go to bed angry” is perennial advice for newlyweds, but Galovan doesn’t recommend it. “Sometimes you just need to go to bed because you’re tired, and things will look much different in the morning.”

If you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired — Galovan likes to use the acronym HALT — it’s best to meet your needs before you start a difficult conversation, he advises. Even if you’re mid-conversation, it’s worth taking a break to have a snack, go for a walk or even head to bed. Galovan says research shows that our physical state can affect how clearly we think. A heart rate of 120 beats per minute and higher creates mental cloudiness, for instance. It’s best to let anger or anxiety subside — and your body relax — before continuing hard conversations.

There’s just one caveat: ensure you plan another time to talk. “Otherwise, it can come across as though you don’t want to talk about it and are trying to avoid your partner,” says Galovan.

Practise mindfulness

Flourishing, happy people have flourishing, happy relationships, research suggests. And what is it that helps us flourish and be happy? For Galovan, being aware of our emotions and intentional in our responses to our partners tops the list.

Mindfulness can help. In his research, Galovan has found that mindfulness — staying in the moment and being aware of thoughts and feelings — helps individuals relate in positive ways to their partners. Besides helping us regulate our emotions, mindfulness allows us to tune in to our partner’s humanity during times of discord instead of zeroing in on perceived faults. This is helpful for maintaining empathy and, in turn, empathy leads us back to connection.

“If you can see them as a person and acknowledge who they are as a person, the empathy is going to come. You’re going to realize, ‘Hey, they’re just like me — they have some challenges, but they’re doing the best they can. I might not be happy with their behaviour right now, but I can try to understand where it’s coming from and validate their feelings.’”

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