Advice for Building Caring, Meaningful Relationships that Last
A healthy, secure romantic relationship can be an ongoing source of support and happiness in life. It can strengthen all aspects of your wellbeing, from your physical and mental health to your work and connections with others. However, a relationship that isn't supportive can be a tremendous drain on you emotionally. Love and relationships take work, commitment, and a willingness to adapt and change with your partner. Whether you’re looking to keep a healthy relationship strong or repair a relationship on the rocks, these tips can help you build a caring and lasting union.
What are your expectations of a relationship?
Curiously, how you felt about the people who cared for you as an infant may have shaped your expectations of love and relationships as an adult. If your caretaker was understanding and caring, you trusted them and likely find it easy to trust your romantic partner now. But if your caretaker was unstable, anxious, or abusive, your expectations of love may have become colored by these experiences. This relationship with your primary caretaker may also have influenced how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you feel with emotions—your own and other people’s.
Traditional relationship advice often boils down to tips such as to fight fair, avoid taking out your problems on your partner, and to expect ups and downs. While this is good advice, it doesn't take into account how negative early life experiences can shape our views of love and relationships. The first step to improving your relationship is 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 you feel loved by someone, your brain and nervous system become more relaxed, function more efficiently, and you feel happier and healthier. In essence, the sensation of feeling loved is nature's antidote to stress. There is no quicker or more effective way to override stress than with face-to-face communication with someone who makes you feel understood, safe, and valued.
For most people, falling in love usually seems to just happen. It’s preserving that “falling in love” experience that requires commitment and work. Given its rewards, though, it’s well worth the effort. By taking steps now to preserve or rekindle your falling in love experience, you can build a meaningful relationship that lasts—even for a lifetime.
Relationship advice tip 1: Invest quality time in face-to-face contact
You fall in love looking at and listening to each other. If you continue to look and listen in the same attentive ways, you can sustain the falling in love experience over the long term. You probably have fond memories of when you were first dating your loved one. Everything seemed new and exciting, and you likely spent hours just chatting together or coming up with new, exciting things to try. However, as time goes by, the demands of work, family, other obligations, and the need we all have for time to ourselves can make it harder to find time together.
Many couples find that the face-to-face contact of their early dating days is gradually replaced by hurried texts, emails, and instant messages. While digital communication is great for some purposes, it doesn’t positively impact your brain and nervous system in the same way as face-to-face communication. The emotional cues you both need to feel loved can only be conveyed in person, so no matter how busy life gets, it’s important to carve out time to spend together.
Tell your partner what you need, don't make them guess
It's not always easy to talk about what you need. Even when you’ve got a good idea of what’s important to you in a relationship, talking about it can make you feel vulnerable, embarrassed, or even ashamed. But look at it from your partner’s point of view. Providing comfort and understanding to someone you love is a pleasure, not a burden. So tell your partner what you need. And remember, everyone changes over time. What you needed from your partner five years ago may be different from what you need now.
Don’t be afraid of disagreement
Some couples argue quietly, while others raise their voices and passionately disagree. The key is not to be fearful of disagreement but see it as an opportunity to grow the relationship. Both people in a relationship need to express the things that bother them without fear of humiliation or retaliation from their partner. Being able to do so can help improve you as individuals and as a couple.
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 the busiest 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, affectionate physical contact on brain development. And the benefits don’t end in childhood. Affectionate contact boosts the body’s levels of oxytocin, a hormone that influences bonding and attachment.
While physical intercourse is often a cornerstone of a committed relationship, it shouldn’t be the only method of physical intimacy. Frequent, affectionate touch—holding hands, hugging, kissing—is equally important.
Be sensitive to what your partner 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
Think of emotional communication as the language of love. When you experience positive emotional cues from your partner, you feel safe and happy, and when you send positive emotional cues, your loved one feels the same. When you stop taking an interest in your own or your partner's emotions, your ability to communicate will suffer, especially at stressful times.
There’s no reason to fear emotions. They are just feeling messages that your brain emits to keep you alive and well. What you do with these messages, however, is a choice. As long as you are connecting emotionally, you can empathize with your partner and work through whatever problems you’re facing.
Take note of your partner’s nonverbal cues
So much of our communication is transmitted by what we don’t say. Nonverbal cues—eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures such as leaning forward, crossing your arms, or touching someone’s hand—communicate much more than words. For a relationship to work well, each person has to understand their own and their partner’s nonverbal cues or "body language."
Think about what you are transmitting as well, and if what you say matches your body language. 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 stress in check to remain emotionally aware
If you’re not calm and focused, you’ll have difficulties thinking clearly or being emotionally alert and responsive. One of the most reliable ways to reduce stress quickly is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. You could squeeze a stress ball, for example, or smell a relaxing scent, or taste a soothing cup of tea. We all respond differently to sensory input, so take the time to find something that works for your nervous system.
Tip 4: Stay connected by being a good listener
Good listeners hear more than the words being spoken; they pick up on the emotional content of what’s being said. People who really listen make you feel understood and valued and draw you closer to them. That’s why good listeners are often regarded as "charismatic."
While a great deal of emphasis in our society is put on talking, if you can learn to listen in a way that makes another person feel understood, they’ll value being with you. The ability to listen is also at the very heart of conflict resolution.
Listening doesn't require you to agree with your partner or to change your mind. But it will help you find common points of view that can help resolve conflict.
Listening in this way engages your brain, heart, and curiously, also your stomach, which can alert you to trouble or danger.
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 outside of the relationship. Volunteering for a cause, project, or community work that has meaning for both of you can keep a relationship fresh and interesting. It can also expose you both to new people and ideas, offer the chance to tackle new challenges together, and provide fresh ways of interacting with each other.
As well as helping to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, doing things to benefit others delivers immense pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired to help others. The more you help, the happier you’ll feel—as individuals and as a couple.
Enrich your relationship with separate interests as well
Despite the claims of romantic fiction or movies, no one person can meet all of your needs. In fact, expecting too much from your partner can put unhealthy pressure on the relationship. To stimulate and enrich your romantic relationship, it’s important to preserve connections with family and friends and maintain hobbies and interests outside of the relationship as well.
If you need outside help for relationship problems
Sometimes problems in a relationship may seem too complex or overwhelming for you to handle as a couple. In that case, it’s important to reach out together for help. Available options include:
Couples counseling. Both partners need to honestly communicate what they need, face the issues that arise in counseling, and then make the necessary changes. It’s also very important that both people feel comfortable with the counselor.
Individual therapy. Sometimes, one partner may need specialized help. For example, if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you may need counseling to help process the grief. If your loved one needs help, don’t feel like you’re 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 huge difference to your relationship.
Spiritual advice. Advice from a religious figure such as a pastor or rabbi works best if both partners have similar convictions of faith and a good relationship with the spiritual advisor.
Emotional Intelligence building. Helpguide's free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit provides articles, videos, and audio meditations designed to help you put the skills of emotional intelligence and communication into practice.
Resources and references
The health benefits of strong relationships – How good connections can improve your health and increase longevity. (Harvard Health Publications)
Attachment and the regulation of the right brain (PDF) – Article by Dr. Allan N. Schore about attachment theory. (AllanSchore.com)
Feeling Loved: The Science of Nurturing Meaningful Connections and Building Lasting Happiness – Book from HelpGuide’s co-founder, Dr. Jeanne Segal, about the importance of emotional connection. (HelpGuide)
Help with Relationships – Range of articles addressing common relationship problems, such as arguments and conflict, communication, infidelity, and mental health issues. (Relate UK)
Am I in a Healthy Relationship? – Article aimed at teens to determine if your relationship is as healthy as it should be. (Kids Health)
How can you improve your relationship? – Tips for nurturing your relationship. (Relationships Australia)
What is a Healthy Relationship? – A succinct checklist of the characteristics of healthy relationships. (Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence)