Relationship advice is a tricky thing. When it’s unsolicited, it can be annoying and sometimes even insulting (hey, we all have that friend). But when you actually seek it out, it can be hard to find what you’re really looking for—like a definitive answer on whether or not yours is healthy, and what’s truly important.
Sure, there’s your go-to advice like “don’t go to bed angry,” and “respect is important,” but we’ve all heard those before. That’s why we consulted expert therapists for the best tips they most regularly share with their patients.
Schedule dates to talk about your relationship.
“Commit to investing an hour—on an ongoing basis—to work on strengthening your relationship, troubleshooting, and making it more satisfying,” says Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D. Set up a weekly or monthly dinner where you only talk about relationship issues or goals.
Sure, it might sound drab, but getting your “homework,” or couple’s maintenance out of the way during a designated conversation is better than having it sabotage a perfectly romantic meal. Make sure to cover the things that you’re grateful for as well as use the time to figure out how to solve problems and minimize them in the future, Cilona says.
Be candid about your feelings—the good and the bad.
Regularly opening up can help bring you closer, says psychotherapist Beth Sonnenberg, L.C.S.W. “Once you think that your feelings don’t matter, won’t be heard, or are not worth sharing, you open the door to harbor negativity and resentment.” That includes positive feelings, too, she points out—especially when they’re connected with your partner. “People need to feel appreciated in any relationship,” she adds.
Figure out the recurring issues in your relationship. Then, do something about them.
Every couple has these. Maybe you repeatedly fight about your intense work schedule, or your partner’s spending habits. Whatever it is, not addressing the root of the problem means you’re going to continue to fight. That’s why Cilona recommends that you and your partner identify recurring conflicts, and decide on the solutions. It’s helpful to focus on “specific and discrete behaviors” when you do this instead of labels and interpretations, he says.
For example, instead of saying that your partner is inconsiderate when they buy a mini fridge without consulting you, it’s better to say that when they make big purchases without talking to you first, you feel like they’re trying to hide things from you. “Focusing on the issue rather than blame can allow for more effective problem solving and a team-based approach,” Cilona says.
Don’t expect your partner to be your BFF.
“We expect so much from our relationships these days. We want our partner to be a best friend, confidant, co-parent, and companion. Yet, this sets us up to be disappointed when our partner cannot fulfill our needs,” says licensed family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters from Your Therapist.
Obviously, you should expect your partner to meet some of those needs, but the best friend one is complicated. If you feel like your partner just isn’t best friend material for you, Klow recommends finding “healthy, alternative ways” to have that need met through others. “This can free up your relationship to be a source of joy rather than something that lets you down,” he says.
Before commenting, repeat their words out loud.
It’s called “mirroring.” Here’s how it works: When you’re having an important discussion with your partner, repeat back exactly what you heard them say before you comment on it. For example, something like “So what you’re saying is, you think we need more time for just us without friends or kids around?” is more effective.
“You will be endlessly surprised at how the simplest statements are heard differently by various people,” Cilona says. “This not only dramatically improves the accuracy and quality of communication by allowing for correction of misinterpretations, but also creates of strong sense of being heard and understood in each partner.”
Remember, don’t just say how you feel…show it.
Sure, it’s a good idea to say, “I love you” often, but “the act of showing matters, because we don’t say those three little words as often as we should,” says psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., author of The Happy Couple. He recommends expressing yourself by doing little things like making coffee for them in the morning, warming up their car, or stocking the freezer with their favorite flavor of Halo Top. “A random act of kindness doesn’t take much, but it can make a big difference,” he says.
Don’t be afraid to talk about money.
It’s so easy to fight about finances but talking about money—the right way—can actually help make your relationship stronger, Cilona says. “A couple that communicates their financial goals, and is willing to work together to achieve them, will likely have a deeper bond,” he adds. So, if you know you like doing your research before a big purchase but your partner is more impulsive, have that conversation before the car lease is up. Or, if you’re more interested in investing in travel than saving up for a vacation home, be up front about your preferences so you can find a common ground.
Choose to love your partner every day.
“My favorite piece of advice is the idea that every day we wake up and decide to feel affection towards our partner,” says psychotherapist Jennifer L. Silvershein, L.C.S.W. The idea behind this is simple, she says: Love is an active daily choice, and you have control over how you’re feeling. “When we wake up and the first thing we notice is a flaw in our partner, it will be hard to feel connected and in love for the rest of that day,” she says. “If we wake up and identify something we love or admire, that sets the tone.”
Fight in a productive way.
Every couple fights, but fighting in a way that moves the conversation forward and clearly explains why you’re feeling a certain way can make a difference. Silvershein recommends being specific about how your partner’s actions impact you. For example, “When you forget to text when you’ll be late, it makes me feel like you don’t care.” “When we begin shifting our language to share how our partner’s behavior makes us feel rather than just telling them what to do, I find that couples become more fluid and more aligned in their daily functioning,” she says.
Ask your friends for advice.
Sure, you and your partner have your own thing going on, and no one is perfect. But maybe you admire the way your couple-friends seem to navigate conflict or you really want to emulate the united front that your parents have always had. Whatever it is, talk to these people about how they’re able to achieve the aspects of their relationship that you admire, Cilona says. You don’t need to make a huge thing of it. Just say, “I really love how you and your partner seem to share responsibilities. How do you do that?” Then, if the advice seems good and doable for you? Talk to your partner about it.