This time of the year can be looked on as an opportunity to actively strengthen, deepen, and renew the relationships we already have, as well as expand our circle of friends and support network.
Just as Thanksgiving is a time for reflection and gratitude for life’s gifts, and New Year’s calls for resolutions, February can be thought of as a month in which the celebration of Valentine’s Day might inspire us to reflect on and improve our relationships, romantic and otherwise. Even though the day itself is now behind us, paying attention to our ties to others requires consistent effort. It is well worth it: research indicates that having strong ties to others is healthy in countless ways, and contributes to overall happiness more than any other factor.
Valentine’s Day is, of course, a day reserved for lovers to celebrate each other, and there are other days in the calendar, like anniversaries, that are meant to be romantic. For those in relationships these “holidays” can be lovely, but they can also provoke with expectations and result in disappointments, as many other “special days” wont to do. Men can be pretty clueless sometimes when it comes to understanding what will please a woman. But it can help to think of this as a boat we women are all in together: it’s pretty crowded. Don’t sink the relationship over small details; I remember one woman who considered breaking up with a man she was dating because of the kind of flowers he brought her (carnations) on Valentine’s Day. It’s important to understand that men often don’t understand the significance to us of certain specific gestures, don’t always know the way to act, and cannot read minds. Much as most of us appreciate something spontaneous and romantic, if you really want to get what you need from your partner, there’s nothing wrong with telling him what it is, including actively reminding him that Valentine’s Day is coming up! If you think about it, it seems that many problems in romantic relationships stem from expectations that the other is not aware of. The concept that if someone really loves you, he should know what you want, is overvalued.
Nevertheless, the core of strong relationships does rest on empathy and compassion, and well-thought-out gifts and gestures can be a part of that. That includes, however, empathizing with your partner’s point of view and capacity to give you what you need.
Furthermore, since psychologists have found that giving does truly bring people more happiness than receiving, and now is a good time for you to show your appreciation of your partner in a way that is meaningful to him, which could possibly be far afield from the way couples traditionally celebrate this occasion. What would he like to do on a special day? Men often characterize “intimacy” as doing something together, rather than intimate talking as women do.
Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School says that happy marriages are based on a ratio of five positive interactions/comments to one negative one, and anything that can be done (within the limits of reason and sincerity) to keep those numbers on the plus side is a good investment. People who say they are in happy marriages report an eight to one ratio of positive/negative interactions. Researchers have found that positive interactions have a ripple effect and are likely to increase loving gestures in return. Many women resent the fact that they have to do most of the “work” of proactive positivity, but one of the worst things you can do, as we all know, is to “keep score.”
How can you increase the ratio in your relationship? One of the most important moments turns out to be how we respond to one another’s successes. When your partner reports happy news to you, pay attention. Happy couples respond to each other’s triumphs with enthusiasm, questions, interest, and support. They relive the experience together. They actively cultivate positive interactions, e.g. give compliments, do favors, show appreciation, and remember funny memories. Happily attached couples share experiences: going to new places, and favorite old haunts, taking walks, cooking together, etc.
Another attribute of the long and contentedly married is what’s called the Michelangelo effect: a good partner helps to bring out our best selves. This holds true even if the new growth sometimes separates the couple for a time. An example is a woman who went to Italy to take a month-long painting course. Romantic relationships are strengthened by physical intimacy. Keep it going—the happiest couples have sex two to three times a week, but even once a week can make a difference. It’s not just that sex brings us closer: it also increases the flow of endorphins—the chemicals that produce a feeling of wellbeing—in the brain.
Finally, when you fight, and you will, do it in a constructive manner: avoid insults, devaluing, stonewalling; instead, express humor, affection, and be willing to concede certain points to your partner. Remember to ask yourself, would you rather always be right or would you rather be happy?