Experts increasingly know that human connection is integral to well-being, every bit as essential as getting enough sleep or moving your body. But relationships, particularly romantic partnerships, can be tricky. And we seldom receive the straightforward, evidence-based guidance we might get from a doctor about exercise or rest.
Relationships are a big part of what we cover on the Well desk, and we spend lots of time talking to researchers and therapists who are steeped in this stuff. So we are looking back on some of the best relationship advice we’ve covered so far in 2023.
Here is a roundup of tips to keep your connection strong and healthy.
Those silly-but-frequent fights have a root cause.
If you find yourself squabbling with your partner over low-stakes matters such as unwashed dishes or dirty laundry, pick a calm moment and sit down together, said Talal Alsaleem, a couples counselor from Rosedale, Calif.
Then, explore what is actually bugging you about the situation. Often, “it’s safer to fight about taking out the garbage” than about issues that revolve around, say, feeling powerless or dismissed, Dr. Alsaleem said.
Delve deeper to figure out what sets you off, said Patricia Lamas Alvarez, a couples therapist from South Pasadena, Calif., by asking yourself questions like: “What feeling does this bring up for me? Is it something I felt in childhood?” Then share these insights with your partner.
Ask this question if a loved one is upset.
When Heather Stella, a special-education teacher in upstate New York, has a student who is agitated or overwhelmed, she asks them one question: Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?
This simple question, Jancee Dunn discovered, works just as well in adult relationships. It shows empathy, respects boundaries, calms swirling emotions and helps partners take positive action.
Finding out whether your loved one wants to be helped, heard or hugged is really asking, “How can I meet your needs?” said Jada Jackson, a licensed mental health counselor in Dallas.
Defuse a fight with four simple phrases.
Here’s a situation that might seem familiar: As a conflict with your partner rises, you picture a thought-balloon above their head and fill it with whatever you imagine they are thinking.
This relationship-sabotaging habit is known as “unconscious storytelling,” said Terrence Real, a family therapist and the author of “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” and “it can escalate an argument and distort the issue.” Instead of making assumptions that are possibly untrue, Mr. Real counsels people to share perceived slights using a therapeutic tool known as “the feedback wheel.”
It consists of four prompts: This is what I saw or heard. This is what I made up about it. This is how I felt. This is what would help me feel better. (The final statement is vital, because “you can’t complain about not getting what you never asked for,” Mr. Real said.)
This process can help you shift from anger to vulnerability, Mr. Real said, so you can communicate respectfully, without placing blame.
Beware of ‘phubbing.’
“Phubbing” — a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing” — is an admittedly goofy word. But research shows that ignoring your partner to engage with your phone can lead to marital dissatisfaction and distrust.
“It really can have an impact,” said Anthony Chambers, the chief academic officer at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, even if one partner is just glancing briefly at his or her phone in the middle of a conversation.
Couples should set clear rules around phone use, said Katherine Hertlein, a professor at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the effect of technology on couples and families. Consider setting phone-free zones, like the dinner table or bedroom.
And don’t let resentments simmer. “As soon as you’re starting to identify those feelings of being hurt or frustrated or being snubbed,” Dr. Chambers said, “those are the times when you need to let your partner know.”
Increase your tolerance for talking about sex.
Most people rarely talk about sex with their partners, said Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and co-author of “Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life.” Or, as she previously told The Times, they discuss it only when there’s an issue.
But Ms. Marin believes communication is the foundation of a satisfying sex life, and talking about it is a skill partners can learn. She recommends starting with compliments, maybe about your partner’s appearance or about the connection you share. It can increase intimacy, and ease you into talking about sex on a more regular basis.
Or, consider a “sexual state of the union,” said Emily Morse, a sex educator who told The Times that couples should have a frank conversation about how things are going about once a month.
Keep it brief — not more than 10 minutes, Ms. Morse said — and try to be compassionate and open. Ask questions like: What would you like to see more of in our sex life?
Make the most of outside help.
Many couples delay seeing a therapist until they are stuck in patterns that have calcified, said Orna Guralnik, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst featured in the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy.” At that point, she said, love (or good will) may have run out.
Still, experts acknowledged that finding a couples therapist could be time-consuming and difficult. Online digital directories, like those of Psychology Today and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, can be a useful starting point. When you find a therapist, ask preliminary questions like: What will working with you be like? Have you dealt with my issue before? How do you handle secrets?
And don’t be afraid to offer feedback about your sessions, said Vanessa Bradden, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder and clinical director of Lakeview Therapy Group in Chicago.
“If somebody came to me and said: ‘Hey, you know what? In that last session I really wanted you to be a little more direct with me,’” she said, “I would love that.”