3 Action Steps to Boost Your Happiness in Relationships
Our culture bombards us with messages about how to find happiness in relationships. Media show smiling parents, laughing children, and romantic partners basking in the glow of love.
Here are 3 science-based concepts about happiness and relationships. They can help you move toward more meaningful connections in your life.
- Get to know your attachment style
- Explore how to nurture affection
- Develop self-compassion
1) Get to know your attachment style.
We know that parent-child relationships have a huge impact on how we learn to relate. Research on attachment styles explains a lot about why people approach relationships the way they do.
A basic definition of attachment is a deep emotional connection with another person for protection and comfort. An attachment bond can span space and time.
Infants naturally seek someone to attach to for safety and soothing. So do adults.
Based on that first relationship, we learn we can either 1) feel secure, 2) avoid closeness, 3) reject emotional needs, or 4) expect chaos. The path we take most often becomes our attachment style; secure, avoidant, rejecting or disorganized.
Children who find warmth and comfort through attachment can more readily form warmer, responsive relationships as adults.
They can become well-attached partners who “tune in” to each other emotionally. As lovers and parents they seek to know and soothe a loved one’s distress in caring ways.
Other children learn they can’t depend on an important person to feel safe, accepted, and cared for. As adults, they may try to avoid their own emotions, tune out a partner’s needs for comfort, or seek relationships like the one they knew growing up.
Ideally, all children would find secure attachment. It turns out that only about 60% of a group of children grew up securely attached, says a Princeton University report of attachment research. The other 40% had poorly attuned, less responsive care. These children often learn to avoid feeling emotions — especially the painful ones. They may also struggle with emotional needs in relationships as adults.
Adults who learned to avoid emotions may not seem at all concerned about it.
But if you have difficult relationships, at home or at work, you might want to learn about other attachment patterns. If you’re open to exploring your emotions, secure attachment is learnable, and there are so many wonderful things to learn.
2) Explore how to nurture affection.
Eye contact, and kind words and deeds are powerful gestures to show affection. A warm touch can also help a positive relationship grow closer.
Recent news about sexual assault may make us wary of touch. But not knowing about healthy touch can cause needless emotional suffering.
For some people, touch is the primary way they show affection, outside of sexual intimacy. It is one of the five love languages author Gary Chapman describes.
Warm physical touch raises levels of hormones that reduce stress and increase feelings of calm. Physical affection can help partners (or parents and children) feel understood, attached, safe in their trust, and more satisfied with the relationship. Science has found at least seven ways that physical contact with loved ones can help maintain closeness:
- Warm physical touch naturally releases oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone
- Among married couples, the amount of physical affection can predict how much they say they like and love each other
- Blood pressure is lower in in women who hug their partners more. For men, we need more research.
- A warm touch can help encourage feelings of trustworthiness for more friendly interaction.
- Positive touch helps couples lower levels of stress hormones on a daily basis.
- Romantic partners who touch more (outside of sex) also report being more satisfied with their relationship and their partner
- Today’s physical affection can make you feel good tomorrow too, found a study of mid-aged women.
There are seven ways to show love with physical affection, says another study. They are aimed at expressing platonic warmth outside of having sex. These are:
- Caressing or stroking
- Holding or cuddling
- Holding hands
- Kissing on the face
- Kissing the lips
Which one would your loved one like best?
If you know the answer, it means you are building a love map of your partner’s world.
A love map is one of the most powerful tools to deepen a relationship and help love last. Dr. John Gottman discovered that the most successfully happy couples made themselves expert on each other — they kept up on each other’s goals, worries, hopes, and dreams.
It may be more important than you know to stay tuned to your partner’s inner world. Friendship is the strongest factor — by 70% — of a couple’s satisfaction together, found Gottman.
Wonder how to go beyond “How was your day?” Gottman’s Love Map exercise can help. It’s a series of questions you can ask each other. You might even have fun.
3) Try Self-Compassion
Do you wish you were a better parent? Did you disappoint your partner by working too late or forgetting something important? Did something go wrong at work, and you’re involved?
To err is human. When you make a mistake, you can feel so bad, it can impact how you function in your job or personal life.
Some people unleash a harsh self-critic when they mess up. They berate themselves for being “weak” or “stupid.” Their self-esteem takes a big hit.
Other people get defensive when involved in a mishap. If a loved one gets upset about a problem, the partner may take it as an attack on their character or worth.
It’s natural to want to defend yourself. But we know that both criticism and defensiveness are toxic to a romantic relationship.
Enter self-compassion. It’s a distinct mindset that puts kindness first in addressing any hardship in your life.
Self-compassion has three components, says researcher Dr. Kristin Neff:
- Self-kindness rather than self-judgment (showing care and kindness when you suffer)
- Sensing common humanity rather than isolation (believing your flaws make you human — join the club)
- Mindfulness rather than over-identification (recognizing hurt and letting it pass, rather than becoming consumed by it)
Not only is self-compassion a more soothing path to repair mistakes. Self-compassion also promotes healthier relationships.
People who treat themselves kindly are more inclined to treat a partner kindly too. Self-compassion supports self-awareness, helping partners to be authentic and earn trust.
Start With You
These are just three of many ways that relationship science is helping us make more meaningful connections.
You may want to better manage your emotions, soothe anxiety and stress, and develop romantic relationships. But with so much information, where do you begin? Random acts of hugging may not produce what you want. Learning new ways to relate takes time and practice.
Therapy is a place to “tune in” to yourself emotionally. It’s a place to become more fully present to yourself, and safely try new ideas before using them in the real world. When you can respond to your own emotional needs first, you’ll find more satisfying ways to respond to others, too.
We are here to help you.
You and your friendships can thrive on actions you can learn. Talk with one of our skilled therapists in Alexandria Virginia.