The Surprising Secret Sauce That Keeps Romantic Relationships Hot

Written by Morgan Johnson.

“Among couples who live happily together for years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.”

One of my favorite messages that bubbles to the top of #RelationshipScience research is: “little things often.”

Partners who stick together happily pump in positivity and connection in seemingly mundane interactions all the time. We can use daily, routine interactions as rituals to remind us we’re a team and things are good.

The Gottman Institute found that “master couples” are really good at keeping the positive to negative ratio around 5:1 during conflict and around 20:1 when they’re just hanging out.

I find it particularly rad that Gottman was one of the first to really say, wait–let’s observe couples who are doing okay and feeling good, not just our clinical population already in the thick of negative sentiment override and wanting to stab each other.

You can think of how to apply all this ratio stuff like keeping an “emotional bank account.” In Gottman’s research, couples who didn’t end up staying together or stayed together unhappily tended to show a positive to negative ratio more like 8:1.

This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, but we should be mindful. I like to imagine this balancing act as a seesaw: on one end is a super happy plump kid with pink cheeks, candy falling out of her overall pockets, and an annoyingly big smile, and she’s just kinda keeping the little, frail ultra-whiney goth kid with black fingernails on the other side of the seesaw from getting too many turns in. 😜

Do you know what your partner’s “love languages” are? If you aren’t sure, you can both do this online quiz.

I almost never do couples work without making sure each person in the relationship recognizes:

1) How they give and show love.

2) How they feel and experience being loved.

We’re all different and it’s awesome! It’s just key that say, if physical touch and quality time are how you really feel love and show it, but your partner feels love when they hear words of affirmation and experience acts of service–you mix it up!

Words of affirmation, validation, and appreciation are what we often find sparse in a relational landscape that’s experiencing desire drought.

You may think a big Cancun vacay is what will re-spark your intimate life, but it’s more likely that peppering each day with más “thank you,” “appreciate you,” “we’re in this together,” “you are the coolest,” “I’m so lucky”–pumping in the positive–that’s what game changes relationships.

Trust isn’t created in elaborate, grand gestures–it’s really built in thousands and thousands of little, often unnoticed moments where our brains and bodies go, “Oh, yeah, you again–this is nice. This is safe. I like dis mmm.”

If the fabric of your relationship is reinforced with deep friendship, this is where we see romantic relationships lasting—happily.

High five more. Leave more love notes in pants and on mirrors. Make an “Appreciations Jar” with notecards that have kind thoughts and thank you’s to read if it’s a day when your partner isn’t as available for verbal affirmations for whatever reason. Be silly more!

Sometimes I feel like a big part of my job as a counselor for couples is to pitch to them this wild notion that to get feeling un-stuck in relation, we have to really get ourselves in a spirit of generosity and non-transactional/non-capitalistic giving without expecting returns.

That can feel scary and rough as hell if the emotional bank account is heavy on the negatives and sparse on the positives. It takes courage to try giving without feeling sure the person on the other end will lean into us at the same time.

It helps to have outside support sometimes because emotional baggage from the past and acquired patterns of behavior and brain states can get in the way of an unbiased audit of the emotional bank account.

The good news is you can begin to see big changes in not a huge amount of time with methods rooted in relationship science like Gottman and Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT)! You just have to commit to a little work every day–it’s like diet and nutrition; adopting a “lifestyle” of kindness.

I myself feel relieved that I don’t have to be saving up for lavish get-aways or gifts all the time but can really feel empowered to keep my relationships feeling good by making sure I’m persistent with a few easy, “little” things.

Little things often, y’all–that makes the biggest difference.

Morgan Johnson is a post-graduate counseling intern at The Center for Relationships with a Bachelor’s from Wake Forest and a Masters degree in professional counseling from St. Edward’s University.  She is the director of our Intimacy Support program as well as the creative force behind many of our innovative ideas.  Follow her on Facebook @MorganJohnsonATX and Twitter @MojoATX.  If you would like to schedule a meeting with Morgan, please call 512-465-2926.