9 Small Changes To Make Your Relationship Healthier In 2019

Image by Leah Flores / Stocksy

As you're contemplating ways to make your life a little healthier, less stressful, and more joyful this year, consider committing to spending a little more time and intentional effort on your relationship—especially if it's one you've been in for a long time. It's easy to turn to autopilot as the years go by, but investing in your relationship while the waters are smooth will pay off during the storms to come.

Here are some of the simplest changes you can make with your partner that will keep your relationship healthy for the long haul, all recently recommended by some of our best professional love experts:

1. Schedule 10 minutes of intentional communication each day.

"Often, people don't intentionally communicate with their partners outside the normal day-to-day small talk until something's gone wrong, and by that point, many of us are not communicating very well, anyway. Creating and abiding by a daily end-of-day conversation ritual means intentionally setting aside a time and place to reconnect every evening and to share how your day went.

"Importantly, this is not a time to bring up current relationship conflicts. Instead, this talk should give you and your partner the space to chat about whatever else is on your mind or in your heart outside of the relationship. This is a time for you to really express compassion and empathy for your partner's feelings and thoughts without judgment. It's an opportunity to really "take your partner's side" in all things in life without the pressure of discussing conflicts between the two of you. And because you're not discussing issues within the partnership, it's so much easier to be understanding of your partner's worries or concerns." —Danielle Dowling, Psy.D., doctor of psychology and life coach

(Here's how to get started.)

2. Say these four words more often.

How can I help?

"In the spring of 2017, a cartoonist named Emma wrote an illustrated story about the 'mental load,' the implicit project management work that lands in the lap of (typically female) primary caregivers. This resonated globally, and soon the phrase 'mental load' was plastered across social media, everywhere.

"'How can I help?' doesn't solve the mental load, but it acknowledges the role of the caregiver as team leader and the other adults in the home as part of the team. Someone's gotta quarterback the logistics of children. But the same person can't be the quarterback and the receiver. 'How can I help?' enables you to quarterback and creates a domestic culture of receivers ready for the pass, prepared to complete the play." —Allison Task, PCC, career and life coach

(Here's how to implement it.)

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3. Communicate sexual desires outside the bedroom.

"While communicating your needs may feel more natural while the act of sex is happening, it's actually best to have this discussion outside the bedroom while also letting your partner know how much you appreciate him or her. Couples who thrive sexually have the ability to speak about this stuff openly, so try to make that a habit." Esther Perel, psychotherapist, renowned relationships expert, and mbg Collective member

4. Try eye gazing.

"Eye gazing, the practice of mindfully staring into someone's eyes, feels awkward at first—and still feels weird after a few attempts, I found. It kind of takes you back to the playground, to those days of staring competitions and 'whoever blinks first is a loser.' But practitioners have found it helps them to reconnect with their beloved.

"Try to practice regularly or whenever you feel discombobulated with each other. And aim to keep the connection even during stressful, busy times. Don't turn straight back to your phone screen the minute you're done. Last but not least, applaud your shared bravery. Eye gazing is bold and bare, with no escape. You are literally face to face. People might dismiss the practice as wimpy hippie-woo-woo stuff, but you need to be strong—or strongly want change in your relationship—to do this." —Sarah Ivens, Ph.D., certified life coach and author

(Here's a handy step-by-step guide.)

Image by Leah Flores / Stocksy

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5. Cultivate more generosity. Giving the benefit of the doubt generously is a good place to start.

"Your first interpretation of your partner's behavior should be in their favor. If he doesn't call when he said he would, he probably got busy at work. If she is late to the restaurant, maybe traffic was heavier than usual, or she had an unexpected issue to take care of. If he missed acknowledging an important occasion, maybe he had more on his mind than usual. If she is not very affectionate lately, perhaps she is worrying about something or having a bad day. This is not the same as letting major neglect and infractions slide; instead, it is summed up by the adage, 'Don't sweat the small stuff.'" Linda Carroll, M.S., licensed marriage and family therapist

6. When arguing, learn to differentiate between feelings and thoughts.

"Many people get these two confused, especially during conflicts. They label their thoughts as feelings and then feel entitled to them, insisting to their partner, 'You can't tell me my feelings aren't valid; they're my feelings!' This statement is true about feelings—but not about thoughts. Your feelings can't be invalid, but your thoughts can. Discriminating between the two can be especially difficult, but this distinction is crucial if you want to stay grounded and want your partner to participate in the conversation.

"So how do you tell the difference? Feelings are emotions that fall into one of four broad categories: sad, mad, glad, and afraid. A thought is simply your perspective, observation, or interpretation of a situation.

"Let me give you an example. You might say, 'I feel like you don't value the contribution I make to the family,' but this is not a feeling statement. You probably feel sad and resentful, but you think your partner does not appreciate you and think they don't value what you do. This distinction can defuse the tension because recognizing and acknowledging that you have added your own meaning to the feelings underscores that they are just your thoughts; they are not absolute and may not be correct. This is what opens the door to a discovery process about what's really going on between you." Jessa Zimmerman, certified sex therapist and couples counselor

7. Learn how to lovingly disengage from a conflict when necessary.

"If they don't eventually open to a two-way conversation to find a mutually beneficial resolution, then you can and should do your own inner work to decide how to take loving care of yourself in this situation. Resolve the conflict for yourself, fully accepting that you have no control over your partner.

"We can look at some small examples to understand how this works: If your partner is always late getting out the door with you, you can start to take your own car and agree to meet them later at the destination. If they persist in being messy, accept hiring someone to clean up the house as a perfectly reasonable and necessary solution.

"Importantly, these actions shouldn't be read as passive-aggression, and you should convey that to your partner. They're simply a way for you to solve a problem on your own after attempts at regular conflict management alongside your partner have proved impossible. Let them know ahead of time what you are going to do, and regard them with love throughout this process." Margaret Paul, Ph.D., couples counselor and relationship expert

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8. Spend more time alone.

"It's healthy to spend time alone, whether you're self-reflecting or simply taking part in a favorite solo activity. While it can be scary to feel like you need and want time away from your partner, it's important to communicate what you need when you know you need it. Remember that spending time in solitude is not self-indulgent. When you notice the signs that you need that space, talk to your partner and work together to schedule connected time together and specific times apart. In fact, telling your partner that you need time alone can be a healthy step for your relationship." —Danielle Dowling, Psy.D., doctor of psychology and life coach

(Here's how to know if you're craving some introvert breaks.)

9. Stop expecting your partner to be your sole source of joy and aliveness.

"When infatuation dies, it's not time to leave. It's time to learn about the real work of love, which is about understanding that love is a commitment, a choice, and an act of will. Real love asks what you can give more than what you get.

"It's not your partner's job to be the source of your joy; that's your job and yours alone. It's your partner's job to be supportive, loving, honest, kind, and of strong moral character, and if your partner has those qualities, you are blessed. There's no reason to walk away just because the feelings you typically associate with loving have faded away." Sheryl Paul, M.A., love coach and counselor

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