Let’s face it: Relationships can be tough sometimes — like finding time to spend together, parenting or even arguing over the remote.
And they’ve only gotten more challenging. Nearly half of all Americans say that dating and romantic relationships are harder today than they were 10 years ago, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“Nowadays, our lives are all on social media, which affects our level of privacy and priorities and can complicate relationships,” says Abigail Hardin, PhD, clinical psychologist at Rush. “And the COVID-19 pandemic only adds a level of stress to our lives and can affect how we cope in relationships.”
A healthy relationship also means a healthier you, including a lower risk of heart disease and even lower mortality, research suggests.
So how do you keep that relationship going? Here are a few tips to maintain and strengthen it.
1. Communication is critical.
Communication is the foundation for all relationships, and without it, you can have problems. It’s the No. 1 reason, in fact, that U.S. couples get divorced, research suggests.
“When two people are communicating, roughly half of the message that is being passed and received is nonverbal,” Hardin says. “So it’s really critical to take a step back and think about your partner’s perspective when you’re communicating, especially when navigating text messages and emails.”
Hardin suggests embracing a communication style called a bid for affection — where one partner reaches out to the other partner for connection and validation.
“A bid can be a really simple, small thing like checking in with your partner about their day or even sending your partner a funny video or GIF,” she says. “And then by consistently responding in a positive, supportive way, this can really benefit the relationship.”
2. Arguing in a constructive way can be helpful.
Occasional arguments are inevitable — and can be perfectly normal. It’s how couples argue that matters, Hardin says.
“For a productive argument, couples need to converse with respect and dignity, and actively listen to their partner, versus getting emotionally activated, which can cause more issues,” she adds.
If you notice you or your partner getting overwhelmed, Hardin suggests pausing the conversation and agreeing to come back to it another time.
Physical closeness can also help when you’re tackling a tough topic.
“Physiological connection, like holding hands or sitting very close together, can keep people emotionally grounded through the argument,” Hardin says. “This can really help couples to continue to feel connected and loved, so that the argument can stay productive.”
3. Intimacy can be an important factor.
If physical intimacy is important to you in a relationship, Hardin says that expressing your personal needs is critical.
“As humans, we do a terrible job of helping people figure out how to communicate successfully around physical intimacy,” she says. “Start by talking openly about what works and what doesn't work, what you like and what you don't like, and then making adjustments in the moment.”
If physical intimacy continues to be an issue in your relationship, Hardin suggests visiting a professional sex therapist.
4. Make time for your relationship.
School, work and kids, among other things, can take the focus off our relationships, so it’s important to maintain balance.
“If you're giving 100 percent to work or 100 percent of yourself to other activities, then you’re not leaving much else for your relationship,” Hardin says. “Keep in mind that you need to save part of your energy for yourself and for your partner to productively engage.”
Hardin recommends pulling back from work, hiring a babysitter, scheduling date nights or even physical intimacy.
"You want to make sure that you’re keeping your relationship a priority and not neglecting it."
5. Maintaining individuality is important, too.
Occasionally, couples’ lives become so intertwined that people can lose their sense of identity.
“If you maintain your individual interests, this can help strengthen your sense of self,” Hardin says. “So then no matter what is going on with your partner, you are stable and can support them but also you both have the ability to stand yourselves back up on your own.”
Hardin recommends engaging in regular acts of self-care, as well as exploring your own values, hobbies and interests independently or with friends.
6. Small things can make a big impact.
Although grand gestures on birthdays, Valentine’s Day and other holidays, may be a special way to express appreciation, that might not be as meaningful as engaging in smaller acts more consistently, Hardin says.
“Responding positively to your partner in everyday things — such as checking in with your partner throughout the day or picking up flowers on your way home — is the most important thing you can do for your relationship,” she adds. “Show them you care each day — that’s how you can keep a strong connection with your partner, and ultimately, a healthy relationship.”