Alone time is great — not to mention important for your sanity — but there are some things couples should be doing together. These are the activities relationship experts say belong at the top of both of your To Do lists
By now, you know a good sweat session is great for the bod and brain — research shows it can improve your mood, memory, and sleep, not to mention speed up your metabolism, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and, of course, promote healthy weight management.
But working out with your partner has its own set of advantages. ‘Exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which elevates the heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration,’ says Ayo Gathing, M.D., psychiatrist, relationship expert, and co-author of The Modern Trophy Wife. ‘This heightened physiologic state causes the body to be more aroused, and it helps you perceive your partner as more attractive.’ In fact, a recent Brooks Running survey found that 54 percent of runners feel more turned on after pounding the pavement with their boo. So go on, get yourself — and your partner — a new pair of sneakers already
Talk About Money
Relationship experts across the board say finances are one of the leading causes of divorce, so if there’s one thing all healthy couples do, it’s talk about money. Rather than having one of you handle all the finances, Gretchen Kubacky, a health psychologist in Los Angeles, suggests paying bills together regularly. That way, there are ‘no secrets, no surprises, and you can even make a game out of it to see if you can figure out a way to make your money work effectively,’ she says. Sure, paying the bills isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun, but Kubacky says ‘it relieves an undercurrent of stress and strengthens a couple’s ability to work together on common goals.’
Being glued to your cell phone doesn’t promote healthy interactions with your partner, says Gathing. When both of you set the screen to black, it promotes bonding because it allows an opportunity for completely focused attention, or what Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages, deems quality time — one of the five ways people prefer to communicate with a loved one. Gathing suggests setting limits on phone time — say, no phone allowed during dinner, or after 10 pm — to regularly make time to reconnect.
When you’ve been coupled up for a long time, it’s easy to get stuck in the same routine — even what you do for fun can become monotonous. That’s why Sari Cooper, certified sex therapist and director of the Center for Love and Sex , says it’s important that couples take time to go somewhere they’ve never been before, like an outdoor sculpture gallery, historical home, or hall of fame.
‘Many long-term couples don’t bring their most inspired self to a date, so going somewhere that sparks a new idea or reflection about an innovative cultural experience can bring a new conversation to the relationship,’ she says. It allows you to connect in the way that you did when you first started dating, when you were still discovering new things about one another and were eager to hear each other’s opinions on new subjects.
Prepare a Full Meal
‘Cooking can be a major area of contention for couples, as there is generally one person that is responsible for making the meals,’ says Gathing. Regardless of who’s the chef of the family, she says it’s smart to set aside a time to prepare a full meal together. ‘Even if someone is only passing items, cooking together promotes a sense of teamwork,’ she explains. Plus, men tend to talk more when they’re doing something side by side, like chopping vegetables, rather than staring directly at you. So think of it as another way to catch up on what’s going on in each other’s day-to-day.
Yes, it’s important that your partner accepts you for who you are and doesn’t try to change you (’cause that’ll open a whole can of worms that isn’t fun for anyone). But Seda Gragossian, a licensed psychologist at Talk Therapy Psychology Center, says it’s equally important that couples be able to provide each other with constructive criticism when necessary. The most important part: Not being afraid to actually say it.
‘When you feel accepted, like one often does when they’re in a healthy relationship, that ultimately leads to feeling safe and secure,’ she explains. ‘When a person feels safe, it’s much easier to accept constructive criticism that’s necessary for personal growth and the growth of the couple.’ So, yes, it is okay to offer advice about how he could improve on his work presentation, or suggest new ways to help him nail that running race he’s training for. What’s not okay? Criticising each other for things you cannot change, like whether he’s more extroverted or how much alone time you need.
Try Something New
Instead of boring yourself to tears trying to take up your partner’s devout love of golf even though you know you already hate it, try doing something that’s completely new to the both of you on your next date. ‘Studies show that couples who explore new areas of interest together are more satisfied with their relationships,’ says Gathing. That’s because novelty habits releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. ‘It doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated activity, just something outside of your normal routine.’ Yep, that means it’s finally time to try that mixology class together.
Whether you read chapters aloud to each other or simply take turns silently reading the same book, Gathing says that couples who read together report more relaxation and lower levels of stress. (Hey, it’s way easier to get book club together when it’s just you and your hubs.) Plus, ‘reading stimulates meaningful conversations and creativity, promoting a healthier connection,’ adds Gathing. Try going to the bookstore or library together to pick out something you’ll both enjoy, or, if you’re generally interested in totally different genres, alternate between who gets to pick what you’ll read that month.
‘It seems like a no-brainer that couples who laugh together stay together, but the two of you should crack each other up because laughter increases the brain’s release of endorphins — chemicals that naturally promote feeling good,’ says Gathing. ‘Sharing moments when you laugh together improves your connection and your overall view of the quality within your relationship.’ So, yes, poke fun now and then. If you’re in need of new material, look up the nearest comedy club for date night.
‘Some partners think the only way sex can be exciting or fun is if it’s spontaneous, but smart couples recognise that, just as they plan regular visits to the gym and phone calls home, being intentional about sex is one way to stay connected,’ says Jean Fitzpatrick, licensed psychotherapist and relationship therapist. Make it fun by sending steamy text messages throughout the day that build in anticipation of the main event. ‘Making a restaurant reservation doesn’t take away from the deliciousness of the meal, and neither does planning your sexual encounters,’ says Fitzpatrick.
While it can certainly be fun to play naughty nurse in the bedroom, Cooper says taking on a new personality outside of your sex life is also good for couples. ‘Going to an acting improv class together allows you to learn and laugh together at the challenges involved in trying to act on the spot,’ she explains. ‘When couples play “let’s pretend,” they can experience new aspects of their partner’s personality — and their own — in a fun, non-threatening way.’ And if you happen to love the character your partner portrays, try bringing that guy behind closed doors.
Leave Out the Why
When something goes awry, your instinct may be to ask your partner ‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘Why the hell would you think that’s a good idea?’ But those questions can make someone automatically feel like they have to defend their actions, and that can be unproductive, says April Davis, owner and founder of LUMA luxury matchmaking. ‘Instead, asking “what happened” helps get to the core of what’s really going on,’ she says. Plus, you’ll get more information by asking questions that begin with who, what, when, or where, as they’re more about gathering information and details rather than passing judgment.
Personal growth is a huge area of relationships that often get overlooked — you want to always make sure you’re being emotionally and intellectually stimulated, says Les Parrott, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. But fear often gets in the way. That’s why Gragossian says it’s imperative that couples encourage each other and let the other know that they’re supported. Whether it’s about something big, like a career advancement or change, or something more small, like making healthy tweaks to your diet, doesn’t matter. Being there for your partner to bounce ideas off of or to help cut back on how often you eat out, can be a huge sign of support that they need to power through.
Surprise Each Other
While it’s nice to think that every couple is great at putting together a surprise worthy of being videotaped and going viral on YouTube, let’s be real: It’s more likely that you’re hitched to someone who won’t pull something like that off. But that doesn’t mean he can’t surprise you — and vice versa. Infusing small, often unexpected actions into your day-to-day lives (like surprising each other at work for a quick cup of coffee or lunch) interrupts monotony and helps keep the passion going between healthy couples, says Slatkin. After all, ‘it is often the unexpected — not the actual action — that can reinfuse the thrill that we so often crave and that once swept you off your feet.’
Every once in a while, consider taking the day off from work together. Shirani Pathak, licensed psychotherapist and founder of the Relationship Center of Silicon Valley, says it goes back to the whole ‘couples who play together stay together’ notion. ‘We often get so caught up in the daily grind and everything becomes about the To Do list — grocery shopping, who’s making dinner, who’s helping the kids with their homework. That routine needs to get shaken up a bit in order to keep the connection between the two of you alive,’ she says. Put up that out of office, get the kids off to school, and then do whatever the hell you two want — even if it’s staying in bed all day.
Talk About the Deep Stuff
Most couples think they talk to each other all the time, but how often do you talk about things that really deepen your understanding of one another? Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Oakland University and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great, says her research shows that happy, healthy couples talk to each other frequently, but not about their relationship — rather, they discuss areas like friends, stressors, life dreams, and values, which made them feel as though they really knew one another. Her suggestion: ‘Set aside 10 minutes a day to talk about anything other than work, family, the household, or the relationship. Ask what her favorite movie is and why. Ask him to recall a happy memory from childhood. Ask her what she’d like to be remembered for. Ask him to name the three most hated songs of all time. Do it at dinner, before bed, or anytime, so long as you do it for 10 minutes every day. It’s a simple change that infuses relationships with new life.’
This article was originally published on Redbook.