You visit your gyno for your annual exam, eat healthy to avoid disease, and exercise to keep your body strong, but what do you do to nurture your relationship on a regular basis? Just a guess: not a whole lot. That’s a huge shame, because good relationship advice—particularly when it comes from pros schooled in the field of psychology—can take any solid-gold love to diamond-level strong.
“Most of us operate in crisis mode for our relationship, only giving it sincere attention when there’s a problem that needs fixing,” says Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing near Philadelphia. “But a relationship is like a garden: Even when it’s doing well, weeds can grow and overtake it.”
Which is why the uptick in “happy couples counseling”—seeing an expert long before the thought of Splitsville ever comes up—deserves applause. The proactive approach, which, btw, is a prereq for marriage within the Catholic faith, will help you smooth over even the tiniest (or grandest) of issues—and simply amplify the love you feel for each other on a daily basis.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 pieces of relationship advice, brought to you by the sagest, realest relationship therapists out there…
1. Always assume the best.
Whether or not you’re an optimist, chances are, you find something personal in your S.O.’s actions when they disappoint you. It’s natural because, well, relationships are personal. But 9 out of 10 times (if not all 10), your person has no intention of upsetting you.
2. Notice projections.
Speaking of interpretations, one thing that can mess them up is a psychology term known as projection.
Projection is, in short, when you transfer your own feelings about yourself or a situation onto someone else. While it’s typically a subconscious habit, projecting leads you to assume that your partner feels a certain way when, in reality, they don’t.
3. Stop should-ing on each other.
Should is perhaps the worst word in the English language, at least where relationships are concerned. “It creates a sense of injustice—that something ought to be different from how it is,” says Gillihan. But most of the time, what follows the verb is a personal wish or preference, not an actual truth.
4. Shush up and listen.
You think you listen to your other half, but…do you?
Listening is a verb, not just a passive “you’re talking and I’m not” process. It requires silencing your own thoughts and feelings so you can truly tune in to someone else’s.
“Everyone wants to feel heard, but a lot of couples don’t feel heard as time goes on, and that creates a lot of problems,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a relationship psychotherapist in NYC. “Of course, it’s important to express yourself, but you first have to step back and listen.”
5. Look for opportunities for sincere thank you’s.
Research shows gratitude is the secret to a happy life—and it’s a necessary ingredient for a happy ‘ship, too.
Think about it: Relationships take work, and like at the office, not being acknowledged for putting in time and effort can make you feel unappreciated and even resentful.
6. Partner up when life gets crazy.
“When we’re overwhelmed, we often bring so little to our relationship,” says Sussman. Read: You flake on seeing the new Marvel movie with your partner on Sunday so you can get some work done, or you hardly even kiss them before bed because you’re so exhausted.
“The right equation is to be your best and most loving self at home, so the strength of your bond gives you strength to handle everything else.” Preach!
7. Create a shared goals calendar.
You have goals, your partner has goals—but what about ones you can pursue as a couple? It’s important to envision achieving or doing something as a unit to keep your bond superstrong, says WH advisor “Dr. Chloe” Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in NYC.
“Create a calendar for financial, travel, or hobby goals,” she says. (Like: Visit Japan, learn salsa.) “This helps you see yourselves together in the future, encourages discussion around lifestyle choices, and reminds you to support one another with accountability and by working off each other’s momentum.”
8. Prioritize intimacy.
I’m not talking about sex here, though that is incredibly important in a relationship, too. I mean the kind of intimacy that comes from physical touch, genuine eye contact, mutual smiling, etc.—all the tiny moments that make your heart swell.
“These are the things that remind your partner that you’re in this together, that you choose them and are happy you did,” Sussman says.
9. Proactively check in.
Repeat after me: No matter how well your person knows you, they will never know exactly what’s going on inside your head at all times. So don’t expect them to…ever. You’ll save yourself a lot of drama by voicing your thoughts once you’ve had a chance to process and collect them, Dr. Chloe notes. (And I co-sign.)
That said, you probably harbor a lot of thoughts that you may never voice for one reason or another—and your partner could be doing the same. Perhaps they don’t feel like you’d receive them well, or that their voicing concern wouldn’t lead to beneficial change, anyway, so they suck it up and move on.
10. Take time to see them.
The security of a long-term relationship (and marriage, obviously) is freaking fabulous. But a common price for that is how “used to” your partner you become. “There comes a point when we’re looking at a projection or memory of the person, not who they are in 3-D at that moment,” says Gillihan. “That leads you to make assumptions about what they need based on their past—not their present.”
And, of course, people (yourself included) evolve as time goes on, and when you’re with someone for the long haul, it’s on you to recognize how. So whenever you can—on your next date night, while they’re making the coffee, after they get back from a run—take a second to stop and really see your partner with fresh eyes.