Advice for Building Caring, Meaningful Relationships that Last
An engaging, secure love relationship can be an ongoing source of support and happiness. Good relationships strengthen all aspects of life: your health, your mind, and your work. However, if the relationship isn't supportive, it can be a tremendous drain. Relationships get better or worse depending on how much or how little we understand and invest in them. These tips can help keep a healthy relationship strong, or repair trust and love in a relationship on the rocks.
What you expect from relationships is what you are likely to get
Curiously, how you felt about the people who cared for you as an infant may have shaped your expectations of love. If your caretaker was understanding and caring about what you needed, you trusted them and the emotions you felt for them. But if your caretaker was confused, frightened, or hurt you, your expectations of love may have become colored by these experiences. This relationship with your primary caretaker may also have made you feel uncomfortable with emotions–both your own and other people’s.
Most relationship advice comes from the observation of people who are in either very good relationships or bad relationships. People who want their relationship to be good are given advice such as to fight fair, avoid taking out their problems on their partner, and to expect ups and downs. This is good advice, but it doesn't take into consideration how negative early life experiences shape many people’s view of love and relationships. To change this view, you need to understand why the experience of feeling loved is so important to your brain and nervous system as well as your heart.
Understanding love relationships
Human love has an evolutionary purpose. When we experience feeling loved our brain and nervous system become more relaxed and efficient and we feel happier and are healthier. Feeling loved is nature's antidote to stress. There is no quicker or more effective way to override too much stress and upset than positive face-to-face communication with someone that makes us feel understood, safe, and valued.
Falling in love is often an experience that seems to just happen to us but preserving the “falling in love” experience takes commitment and effort. Given its rewards, though, it’s well worth the effort.
Here are some of things neuroscience has taught us about preserving the falling in love experience—perhaps for a lifetime:
Be willing to invest quality time, energy, and focus in your relationship. This may not be easy given the demands of work, career, parenting, and the need we all have for time to ourselves. Failure to invest in the ones we love results not only in the loss of pleasure but in lost opportunities for health and overall well-being.
Communicate what you feel as well as what you think. Emotional communication is the language of love. When we experience positive emotional cues we feel safe and happy, and when we send positive emotional cues to others, they feel the same.
Don't be afraid of disagreement—see it as an opportunity to grow the relationship. Some couples talk quietly, while others raise their voices and passionately disagree. The key is not to be fearful of disagreement. Everyone needs to express things that bother them without fear of humiliation or retaliation. Couples who do this learn a great deal that helps them improve themselves and the relationship
Enriching the relationship with outside interests. No one person can meet all of our needs, and expecting too much from someone can put a lot of unhealthy pressure on a relationship. Bringing positive energy from family, friends, and outside interests into a relationship can stimulate and enrich it.
Relationship advice tip 1: Invest quality time in face-to-face contact
We fall in love looking at one another and listening to one another and if we continue to look and listen in the same attentive and approving ways, we will sustain the falling in love experience. You probably have fond memories of when you were first dating your loved one. Everything may have seemed new and exciting, and you may have spent hours just chatting together or coming up with new, exciting things to try. However, as time goes by, children, demanding jobs, long commutes, different hobbies and other obligations can make it hard to find time together.
So much face-to-face communication has been replaced by digital screen communication. While that's very good for some purposes, it does not positively impact the brain and nervous system in the same way as face-to-face communication. The emotional cues we and others need to feel loved can only be conveyed in person. Without this kind of investment in quality face-to-face time, communication and understanding start to erode.
Tell your partner what you need, don't make them guess
It's not always easy to talk about what we need. Even when we’ve got a good idea of what’s important to us in a relationship, talking about it can make us feel vulnerable, embarrassed, or even ashamed. But everyone needs comfort and understanding from others and providing it to someone we care about is a pleasure rather than a burden. In addition, people change over time. What you wanted and needed five years ago may be different from what you need now.
Simple ways to connect as a couple face to face
- Commit to spending some quality time together every day on a regular basis. Even during very busy times just a few minutes of really sharing and connecting can help keep bonds strong.
- Find something that you enjoy doing together, whether it is a shared hobby, dance class, daily walk, or sitting over a cup of coffee in the morning.
- Try something new together. Doing new things together can be a fun way to connect and keep things interesting. It can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or going on a day trip to a place you’ve never been before.
Tip 2: Keep physical intimacy alive
Touch is a fundamental part of human existence. Studies on infants have shown the importance of regular, loving touching and holding on brain development. These benefits do not end in childhood. Life without physical contact with others is a lonely life, indeed.
- Studies have shown that affectionate touch actually boosts the body’s levels of oxytocin, a hormone that influences bonding and attachment. In a committed relationship between two adult partners, physical intercourse is often a cornerstone of the relationship. However, intercourse should not be the only method of physical intimacy in a relationship. Regular, affectionate touch—holding hands, hugging, or kissing—is equally important.
- Be sensitive to what your partner likes. While touch is a key part of a healthy relationship, it’s important to take some time to find out what your partner really likes. Unwanted touching or inappropriate overtures can make the other person tense up and retreat—exactly what you don’t want.
Tip 3: Stay in touch emotionally
Emotional communication—awareness of what you’re experiencing emotionally and what your partner is experiencing emotionally—is a fundamental part of good communication and a healthy relationship.
When people stop understanding or having an interest in their own or their partner's emotions, they stop relating well, especially at stressful times. There is no reason to fear emotions. They are just feeling messages that our brain sends to keep us alive and well. What we do with these messages is a choice. As long as you are connecting emotionally, as well as intellectually, you can empathize with your partner’s experience and work through whatever problem you’re facing.
Watch your partner’s nonverbal cues
So much of our communication is transmitted by what we don’t say. Nonverbal cues—such as eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures such as leaning forward or away, or touching someone’s arm—communicate much more than words. For a relationship to work well, each person has to be receptive to sending and receiving nonverbal cues.
Learning to understand this “body language” can help you better understand what your partner is experiencing. Think about what you are transmitting as well, and if what you say matches what you feel. If you say “I’m fine,” but you clench your teeth and look away, then your body is clearly signaling you are anything but “fine.”
Keep your stress in check so that you can remain emotionally aware
If you’re not calm and focused, you will have difficulties thinking clearly or being emotionally alert and responsive. One of the quickest, most reliable ways to reduce stress quickly is through the senses. But each person responds differently to sensory input, so you need to find things that are soothing to your nervous system.
If you have issues with trust or are not aware of what you feel and the motives behind your choices, you would benefit from HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit.
Tip 4: Stay connected by being a good listener
A good listener is someone who hears more than the words being spoken. He or she can pick up on the emotional overtones and undertones in what is being said. Listening in this way engages the brain, the heart, and curiously, also the stomach, which alerts us to danger.
Good listeners are rare, but when we find them we can't get enough of them. People who listen to us make us feel understood and valued and the good feelings we get about ourselves make us want to be with them. A great deal of emphasis is put on talking, but if you can learn to listen in a way that makes another person feel heard and understood, they will value being with you. Good listeners are often regarded as “charismatic” because we can't seem to get enough of them.
The ability to listen is at the very heart of conflict resolution. Few people will listen to us unless we have the ability to listen to them first! Listening doesn't require us to agree and it won't change your mind but listening will help you find common points of view that can help build consensus.
Tip 5: Do things together that benefit others
One the most powerful ways of staying close and connected is to jointly focus on something you and your partner value that creates a common focus of interest outside of the relationship. A cause, a project, church or political work that has meaning for each of you and jointly engages your interest and effort can keep a relationship fresh and interesting. Doing things together that we view as beneficial to others is a process that our highly social human brain experiences as rewarding. It is also a way to stimulate the relationship by exposing it to new people and ideas.
Sometimes the interest that aligns us is a physical or adventure activity that we can have fun exploring together. We renew interest in one another by jointly taking on new challenges and opportunities that give us fresh ways of interacting with and viewing each other.
If you need more relationship help and advice
Sometimes problems in a relationship may seem too complex or overwhelming for a couple to handle on their own. In that case, it’s important to reach out together for help. There are a number of options available, including:
Couples counseling. It’s a big investment, and time, energy, focus and commitment are needed from both people to make a difference, but you might consider couples or marriage counseling to resolve your differences. Both parties need to be willing and able to honestly communicate what they need, face the issues that arise in counseling, and then make the necessary changes. It’s important also that both people feel comfortable with the counselor.
Spiritual advice. Some couples benefit from spiritual advice from a religious figure such as a pastor or rabbi. This tends to work best if both have similar convictions of faith and a good relationship with the spiritual advisor.
Emotional Intelligence building. Try using Helpguide's Emotional Intelligence Toolkit, a free utility for building emotional health and emotional intelligence. This in-depth course provides articles, videos, and audio meditations designed to help you put the skills of emotional intelligence and communication into practice.
Individual therapy. Sometimes one person may need specialized help. For example, someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one may need counseling to help process the grief. If your loved one needs help, don’t feel like you are a failure for not providing everything he or she needs. No one can fulfill everyone’s needs, and getting the right help can make a tremendous difference in your relationship.
If you want your communication with others to be focused, emotionally fulfilling, and supportive, read FEELING LOVED.
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Resources and references
Attachment and the regulation of the right brain (PDF) – Article by Dr. Allan N. Schore about attachment theory. (AllanSchore.com)
Polyvagal Theory – Articles by Dr. Stephen Porges outlining the new understanding of how the body responds to stress. (StephenPorges.com)
Feeling Loved: The Science of Nurturing Meaningful Connections and Building Lasting Happiness – New book from HelpGuide’s co-founder, Dr. Jeanne Segal, about the importance of emotional connection. (HelpGuide)
What is a Healthy Relationship? – A succinct checklist of the characteristics of healthy relationships. (Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence)
What makes marriage work? – Talks about the different styles couples use in fighting, and how the most important tool for success is to resolve conflict (Psychology Today)
Recipe for a Happy Marriage: The 7 Scientific Secrets – Overview of the science-backed relationship insights in New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope’s book For Better. (Barking Up the Wrong Tree)
What Research Tells Us About the Most Successful Relationships – Review what research studies reveal about what makes a relationship successful. (Lifehacker)
Making Love Last: Top Tips on Relationships – Learn about the importance of listening, teamwork, and flexibility in making a relationship work. (Psychology Today)
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