Modern marriage comes with great expectations. You want your spouse to be a thoughtful companion, terrific lover, best friend, attentive co-parent, ambitious worker, your key to fulfillment and more.
It’s an impressive ideal — if it works out.
January 26 marks National Spouses Day. We’re in an era where the best marriages are better than ever, but the average marriage is shaky, says Eli Finkel, author of the book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.”
“We’re lumping more and more expectations onto this one relationship and consequently, we’re actually damaging it,” Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Relationships and Motivation Lab, told TODAY.
“But at the same time, there’s something really nice about high expectations because they put within reach a level of marital fulfillment that would have been out of reach in an era where we weren’t even trying.”
If you’re on the shaky side of things, you could invest more time and energy into your marriage, or just expect less of it. Another approach is to employ what Finkel calls “love hacks” — simple steps to take when you don’t have time to do the “go-all-in” strategies, but aren’t ready to give up on your expectations.
The strategies won’t turn a bad relationship into a good one and they’re not for people who are in danger of being abused, Finkel cautions. But if your relationship is healthy, they can help you sustain a sense of closeness when life gets hectic.
These five science-based hacks have two defining features: they don’t take much time or energy, and you can do them independently of your partner.
1. Think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party
This is one of Finkel’s favorite hacks and it comes from his own lab. People who spent time writing about a conflict with their spouse from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved were happier in the marriage, research conducted at Northwestern found.
It may not be easy to channel a neutral third party in the heat of an argument, but we can train ourselves to do it, Finkel said. Just be pro-active about it.
“It doesn’t make us have fewer conflicts, but it makes us less angry when we’re having a conflict,” he noted.
2. Be generous with your touch
Look for opportunities to touch your partner. A hand hold or a gentle rub of the shoulders is something you can do quickly when you’re swamped or overwhelmed, and you’ll feel a little closer.
What Finkel found especially interesting is that in a research setting, it didn’t matter if spouses knew that the reason why their partners reached out and touched them affectionately was because the experimenter told them to.
“We often feel we need to be authentic and make sure our expressions of affections are spontaneous,” he said.
“But it looks like — at least in this context of affectionate touch — even if you’re not feeling it… but you just think, ‘I should touch now, I’m going to just act in an affectionate way regardless of what my current feelings are,’ that tends to make our partner feel good.”
3. Think about the ways your partner has invested in the relationship
Take a few moments to consider the actions or sacrifices your partner has made to make you happy or to ensure the relationship goes well.
Research shows you’ll feel more grateful to your spouse and more committed to the relationship, Finkel said. He urges people not to get overly ambitious and feel the pressure to list ten big events. Just think of one meaningful thing your spouse has done for you. It’s not necessary to write it down, but if you want to, writing a paragraph might reinforce the effect, he said.
4. View conflict as an opportunity for growth
If you subscribe to the “soulmate theory,” conflict with your spouse can be especially scary because you start to think perhaps you were “not meant to be.”
It may be better to adopt the “work it out theory” of people who believe relationships develop through the resolution of conflict and an active effort to become compatible.
“All of us are going to have conflict, so if conflict is a signal of incompatibility, then that’s pretty destructive for the relationship,” Finkel said.
“If conflict is… an opportunity to learn about each other and grow, then we navigate it much more constructively and we’re more likely to come through it in a way that is beneficial for the relationship, rather than harmful.”
5. Be generous when explaining your partner’s behavior
It’s up to you how you interpret your spouse’s actions. If he doesn’t return your texts, for example, it’s tempting to immediately think “He’s a jerk.” But if your partner is generally a decent, good-hearted person, then there’s a lot to be said for letting things slide, Finkel noted.
Maybe he’s not returning texts because he might have a lot going on or the phone battery is running low. Consider the possibilities and don’t jump to negative conclusions.
“The way we interpret the behavior has a profound impact on how we feel about it and the relationship,” Finkel said.