The past year has challenged us in many ways — and the strain that it’s put on our relationships can’t be ignored. Between the stress of rising COVID-19 cases, sick loved ones, lost jobs, financial struggles, social isolation, and working and learning from home, many couples are feeling overwhelmed, agitated or disconnected.
So how can you turn things around in the new year? While many of these outside forces are beyond our control, you have the power to make some changes within your own relationship. We asked therapists to share some of the small things that can make a big difference.
Here’s how you can be a better partner in the coming year than the last.
1. Ask your partner what specific gestures would make them feel most loved right now.
It’s important to know what your partner’s love language is (and if you don’t, you can have them take the quiz online). But it’s even better to know the particular demonstrations of love that mean the most to them now — especially because their preferences may evolve over time. For example, your boyfriend’s love language might be acts of service, but these days, he may appreciate help with certain tasks more than others.
“Talk with your partner about more nuanced ways you both feel loved, cared for and seen,” said Denver psychotherapist Brittany Bouffard. “Maybe more than your partner’s action of washing the dishes, you feel especially relieved if they called the internet company to dispute a bill — or another adulting task you dread. Your partner doesn’t need to stop helping with the dishes, of course, but it’s good to know more specifically what you most appreciate.”
Make a list of the acts of love you’d most like to receive and share them with one another.
2. Then start doing the things on that list for your partner.
“Maybe it’s making sure that the back door is locked or the cats have been let in,” said Winifred Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California. “Or perhaps keeping track of how much half-and-half is left before you run out.”
Remember that even seemingly small, everyday gestures can go a long way.
“The other day I brought my husband a cup of tea and quietly set it on the desk while he was working,” Reilly said. “He told me later it was the best part of his day.”
3. Do what you say you’re going to do.
Sure, we all drop the ball occasionally but making an effort to be more reliable is key. If you say you’ll call on your way home from work, make sure you call. If you promise to pick up more dog food, do it without a nudge (or four) from your partner.
“Being consistent and doing what you say goes a long way,” said Orange County, California, marriage and family therapist Anabel Basulto. “Use technology to your advantage by setting a reminder or alarm. Or use FaceTime, Zoom or text, as they’re all good ways to connect during busy times. You have heard the saying ‘actions speak louder than words.’ This rings true when it comes to relationships.”
4. Carve out time for your own self-care.
There’s nothing selfish about self-care. Making time to do whatever activities feel restorative to you — calling a friend, taking a walk, reading a book or just sitting in silence — will help you bring the best version of yourself to the relationship.
“If we don’t fill our own cups, it’s pretty much impossible to be present, patient and giving to our partners,” said New York City psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown. “Take time for yourself and focus on restoration so you can show up in your relationship.”
5. Let go of the small stuff.
“If ever there was a time to know the difference between the small stuff and the big stuff, it’s now,” Reilly said. “Finding your partner especially irritating? You’re not alone. Living, as many of us are, in 24/7 contact, that level of ‘togetherness’ can be a bit much. Every kitchen drawer left open, every coffee cup left on the counter or jacket left draped on a chair for the bazillionth time can seem like a 10 when it’s really a 2.”
Ask yourself if this grievance is really worth getting worked up over. If it’s not, close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to move on.
And remember: Chances are, your partner finds some of your habits more than a little annoying, too. “So not making a federal case out of most of them will create a kinder and sweeter tone — which is something we all surely need,” Reilly added.
6. Turn off the TV and put your phone away sometimes.
You may have spent more time under the same roof this past year. That doesn’t necessarily mean you logged more quality time. Maybe you sit on the couch together for hours every evening as you watch Netflix, mindlessly scroll on your phones or answer emails on your laptop — but rarely do you take a quiet moment to connect. Occasionally getting rid of these digital distractions will allow you to be more tuned in to each other.
“Make more time to slow down and really ask how your partner is doing,” Bouffard said. “Watch out for going ― or speeding ― through the motions. Turn off the TV and get off your phones. If you aren’t sure what to say, there are lots of conversation-starter games and books for couples out there. Just get present enough to help each other feel seen and heard.”
7. Practice being a better listener.
Admit it: Sometimes when your partner is speaking, your mind is elsewhere. You’re thinking about something you need to do for work or that errand you need to run. Maybe you’re formulating your response to whatever it is they’re saying or trying to come up with a solution to their issue when all they really want is a listening ear.
“One of the most valuable things you can do for your partner is to communicate to your partner that you’ve truly heard what they had to say,” Robinson-Brown noted. “This comes from not only staying present in the moment and actually listening to what the person has said — versus building your rebuttal or going into problem-solving mode — but also repeating and reflecting back what you heard to ensure true understanding.”
8. Say “thank you” more — and not just via text.
You two might be in the habit of exchanging frequent thank-yous with a few emoji hearts over text, but how good are you at saying it in person? Or when’s the last time you wrote your partner a short note expressing your appreciation for all they do?
“Try [saying “thank you”] the non-tech way, even if it takes 20 extra seconds to grab a pen, or say ‘I love you’ into your partner’s eyes with a hug,” Bouffard suggested. “Tech is a great timesaver but not a strong connector.”
You may not feel the need to thank your partner for the day-to-day stuff — like unloading the dishwasher, helping the kids with homework or taking out the garbage. But it doesn’t hurt to tell them they’re appreciated.
“Both of you making an effort to say it more often in person can certainly make a happy difference,” Bouffard added.