Every relationship is different, but when experts who have studied relationships for over 20 years share tips for making them work, you’re likely to learn something useful.
So it is with psychologists John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D., who wrote The Love Prescription and started the Gottman Institute. The husband and wife team can tell if a couple will stay together by watching them for 15 minutes.
Here are three things you can do every day to make your relationship stronger over time. Small changes can sometimes make the biggest differences.
1. Turn toward
How do you respond to your partner? Do you ignore them (turn away) or engage them (turn toward them)? The Gottmans wanted to assess these patterns, so they created an apartment lab and studied couples who stayed there for 24 hours.
“One of the most powerful things we discovered in our apartment lab was that people were always reaching out for connections,” says John. “They’re making bids for conversation, for touch, and for affection quite often, and the partner’s reaction is critical.”
Namely, they found couples who wound up divorcing seven years after their wedding had only turned toward their partner’s bids for connection 33% of the time. “Whereas the couples who were still married (prior to six years ago) had turned toward those couples 86% of the time. So these small moments are compelling,” John adds.
What does a bid for connection look like, you ask? Well, it can be as simple as: “Honey, look at that bluebird outside. Is that a blue jay?” If you ignore their observation completely, that’s turning away; if you respond with a shared interest, that’s turning toward.
“And that makes all the difference in the quality of friendship, the quality of passion and romance in the relationship, as well as conflict,” says Julie. “[Bids for connection] can be tiny or big, but the important thing is that the tiny ones are just as important to keep fulfilling as the big ones.”
2. Give compliments.
Compliments shouldn’t end at courtship. Many people might think that when you’re in a secure, loving relationship, you don’t need reassurance from your partner anymore—but according to Julie, that could not be more false.
“We continue to need a little reassurance that we’re lovable, that we’re worthy, that we’re enough for our partners… I’ve never met somebody who has surpassed their need for compliments.”
She talks about a study in which couples were watched for an evening in their own homes and the number of positive interactions between them was counted.The results? Couples in unhappy marriages underestimated the number of positive interactions in their marriage by 50%.
“When you say thank you when you compliment your partner, you’re building this culture of appreciation in the relationship that is such a cushion for dealing with the world’s everyday stresses,” affirms John. “It’s just mighty.”
3. physical touch
Touch is essential for healthy relationships, according to the Gottmans (even if physical touch isn’t your love language). That doesn’t mean you have to make sweeping gestures every time you’re out in public, but touch is an integral part of the connection. In fact, “touch is as essential to our well-being as food, water, and exercise,” says Julie.
Think about it: Humans are social beings who depend on each other to survive. It’s why extreme loneliness is associated with a greater mortality risk. “And part of that connection we need for our survival is touch,” Julie adds.
John references the classic study by psychologist Harry Harlow, Ph.D., where researchers gave baby monkeys a wire “mother” that provided milk and a cloth “mother” that provided contact comfort in their cage. When those baby monkeys became frightened, they ran straight toward that cloth mother. “So there’s a basic drive in all mammals for a connection, and touch is a part of that,” John says.
And again, it doesn’t have to be a sexual or intimate touch. “It can be just a touch on the arm, a touch on the shoulder, holding hands—whatever it is, touch makes a gigantic difference in relationships,” adds Julie.
You don’t have to perform grand romantic gestures to secure long-lasting love. According to the Gottmans, small, everyday habits tend to impact the relationship significantly over time. Small, everyday habits tend to impact the relationship significantly over time.
These tips take less than five seconds to practice—an exciting response, a genuine compliment, a touch on the shoulder—but they can influence your partnership in a significant way.