This week, I went to an interesting event (sponsored by Yoplait Yogurt, to promote their new product Plenti, though I was just a spectator). The theme of the night was "habits," a topic with which we are all very familiar. All the talk about habits got me thinking: What about the habits we have in our relationships? Can a relationship be made better by changing our habit strategy?
Lucky for you, I'm a psychologist who has worked on many studies that have teased out why some couples are deliriously happy, while others are not. Here are the five top relationship habits that we have found keep happy couples as blissful as they seem!
Happy couples don't consciously acquire habits, but instead they do what they do, and then we observe them. What we find is that they do indeed have daily habits, weekly habits and monthly habits that are 100 percent relationship-centric.
The best part is that each of these habits are individual to the couples, so the details of what works for some may not work for all, but the habit is the same.
Here's what I mean: Allison and Troy are a couple that we studied. They have coffee together every morning, go to the movies once a week and treat themselves to one expensive meal a month. Eric and Isabella are more athletic. They meet at the gym every day after work, go on a 30-mile bike ride every Saturday morning and do a couples massage once a month together. The activities differ, but all of our couples have a daily habit, a weekly habit and a monthly habit.
The "red zone" is that place you go during an argument where there's no turning back. Either you've said something too hurtful, or you've pushed a button that may change the person’s view of who you are in the relationship for a long, long time. Happy couples have a habit of not going there because they don't want to hurt the person they love.
What we've found is that happy couples have gotten into the habit of walking away and calming down before they lash out. This not only gives them a chance to get a perspective on the argument, but it also reduces the chemical reaction the brain has when you’re angry. As you become angry, chemicals known as catecholamines are released in the brain, causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. If you walk away for a moment or two, those chemicals will subside, and you can discuss rather than yell.
On the surface this may seem obvious, but it isn't. If you observe happy couples, you will see them touch, almost, subconsciously. They will be at a party with dozens of people, but will still have a hand on a knee, or stand so close their arms touch. Or they will be walking down the street or at the theater and will instinctually grab each other's hand.
Why are they doing this? It's not so much sexual as it is emotional. Study after study have found that touch is about communication. You are communicating to the group that you are together, and to each other that there is a deeper emotional connection.
This is the simplest and easiest habit of them all. Happy couples are in the habit of checking in with their partner over the course of their day in a meaningful way. They call to say, "How did that meeting go?" or "Here's the update on grandma's health." The key here is the meaningful check in. They have something to say other than, "Hi, just checking in," which can be misinterpreted more easily.
Happy couples don't necessarily make sex a "habit" per se. What they do have is a similar libido habit and a sense of being on the same page, sexually. This is another habit that is measured individually, and one that you and your partner should negotiate early. Our studies have found that happy couples are on the same page with frequency (how often) and content (what they like to do when they do it).
Building habits takes time and patience. A Duke University study found that if you start small and build on that, behaviors will become habits. If you continue to improve your relationship one moment at a time, you'll see that over the years you will collect many happy single moments that, taken together, amount to a happy relationship.
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