5 Relationship Habits for Sustaining Romantic Connection With Your Partner(s)
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.”
― Esther Perel
Engaging in a romantic relationship can provide connection, value, partnership, collaboration, adventure, and for some, the opportunity to have kids and build a family. Yet many romantic relationships do not last. Or the relationship becomes stuck, difficult, or filled with conflict. So how do you sustain a relationship in the long-term? While there’s no magic formula for success, the following relationship habits can improve your foundation. Think of these as rituals for increasing your likelihood of consistent connection, collaboration, autonomy, and romantic energy.
The 6 Second Hug
Research demonstrates that extending moments of physical intimacy with a safe partner can trigger the release of oxytocin (the “love“ hormone), while buffering the effects of cortisol (the “stress” hormone). In short, you have a valuable resource for mental wellbeing in your partnership. And if you maintain a safe connection together, physical intimacy can trigger the release of very important hormones. But your body requires an extended moment of intimacy in order to spark this hormonal response. Consider finding a consistent time (e.g. leaving for work, going to bed), during which you can connect with your partner and experience your body’s natural “love” hormone. Of course, sex can provide this benefit as well. Just be sure you have conversations about consent and engaging in non-demanding touch as well. Sometimes sex is on the table, sometimes it’s not. Physical intimacy and safe physical connection need to be available in either scenario in order for partners to feel safe and cared for.
The Power of Play
The need for play, or novelty, doesn’t disappear in adulthood – and playfulness helps sustain loving connection. When you play or experience novelty, your brain rewards you by releasing dopamine – the neurotransmitter responsible for learning and motivation. Many couples come to therapy wondering how they get back into that “honeymoon” phase, or reconnect in the way they did early on. While there is no time machine for re-living the honeymoon phase of a relationship, play and novelty are tools for building some of that same energy into your relationship on a regular basis.
But why does this energy often fade? Because relationship patterns become established and partners do not engage in intentional dialogue about how they would like to sustain intimate and novel connection. In other words, they stop playing together. Brain research demonstrates long-term pair bonding (connection) can stimulate many of the same hormones that are often flooding a person’s brain in the early phase of a relationship – so there’s always hope for re-kindling some of those honeymoon feelings. But it takes work.
Find a consistent time with your partner to play – whether this is through a board game, music, dance, art, or learning a new skill as a couple. You don’t need to recreate your entire connection or calendar. But the relationship will benefit from a dose of novelty or newness once a week, month, or whatever time frame works for you and your partner(s).
Have a Weekly/Monthly Meeting
The business of running a life alongside another person(s) can be a major burden. It can also provide stability and partnership. Running a household, raising kids, dealing with finances, planning date nights, or just managing a busy schedule will create stress in relationships. And research consistently demonstrates that there’s no perfect system for distributing the emotional labor or various tasks evenly.
Commit to a collaborative weekly ritual of tackling life’s challenges as a team. This will also give partners an opportunity to communicate clearly about their separate priorities and commitments in a given week or month. Set a timer. Share a calendar. Make lists together. Experiment with trying on one set of responsibilities one week and then flip them the next. Collaborate and allow each partner to utilize their strengths. Never give up on creating a system of task management that keeps you and your partner feeling like a team, instead of adversaries.
If the above feels too task-driven, the Gottman Institute provides a nice alternative in recommending that couples conduct regular, “State of The Union” meetings. These are designed to empower partners with a reliable space where they can reflect together on the relationship, give appreciation, and process any challenging issues in an empathetic and structured manner.
Listen to Understand
Conflict and difficult conversations are an unavoidable part of close connection. When your partner shares something challenging or difficult to hear, avoid matching or stacking on what your partner says. In hearing something difficult, you might feel compelled to shut down or respond with some version of, “Okay so here’s what I am feeling…” without first acknowledging and understanding what they’ve shared. The first step in any exchange is to slow down. Know there will be room for both (or all) of you to be heard. But first, the person doing the sharing needs to feel heard (assuming they are sharing in a respectful manner). Here’s what a communication “check out” can look like:
- “I heard you say x, y, z… did I get that right?”
- “It sounds like you feel a, b, c… is that accurate?”
- “You mentioned e, f, g – and I don’t know if I totally understand – could you tell me more about that?”
Know that it’s also fair to set boundaries in communication. You might not be in an empathetic place, or have the ability to manage your frustration, tone of voice, or response to what your partner shares. In those moments, it’s okay to say, “I want to listen and support you, but I am really activated right now and I would like to finish this conversation in [10 minutes, an hour, tomorrow].” Or you could say, “I am worried I might say something hurtful, and I’d rather collect myself so we can have a respectful conversation later.” Either way, set a specific time aside to return to the conversation. Commit to always finishing those challenging talks together.
Make Space to Be You
Long-term partnered relationships require a lot of time, attention, love, and work. But so do you. The health of your romantic connection relies upon your ability to connect with yourself and maintain your own healthy, and separate, identity. Research shows that in order for a relationship to succeed, partners must experience autonomy and provide autonomy support for their partner(s).
This could look like investing in separate friendships, engaging in hobbies on your own, or pursuing passions with the full support of your partner.
So how does being apart fuel desire for connection? In Mating In Captivity, Esther Perel points out that the need for both separateness and togetherness is the ultimate paradox of loving connection. She states, “With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend… no other internal world to enter. When people become fused – when two become one – connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus, separateness is a precondition for connection.”
As always, if you are struggling in your relationship it can be helpful to find a therapist that fits. We are here to aid you work through any and all challenges you are experiencing with your partner(s).