30 Days to a Better Relationship: the 30-Day Love Challenge, part 1
Recently, I've been thinking about my relationship with my partner and what has made it become a better relationship over the years. Perhaps it was sparked by my son’s recent wedding reception or perhaps it was sparked by the loving way my partner cared for me this week after I had back surgery, and all those weeks leading up the surgery when I couldn’t do simple things like pick something up that I dropped, load the dishwasher, do the laundry etc. I am so grateful to have a partner that is always there for me, in good times and bad and I feel grateful to have such a healthy relationship with him.
My husband and I have continued to grow closer throughout our 23-year marriage. It’s a second marriage for both of us and we were determined to make it a great one. We did counseling early on to work out some differences and like all couples, we had times that were difficult. I think what helped us to build a better relationship was the emotional intimacy that we shared. Emotional intimacy is different from sexual intimacy but it’s the foundation for great sex and for a great relationship.
What is emotional intimacy?
Emotional intimacy is the feeling of closeness and deep connection with your partner. It’s knowing what’s going on inside of your partner – what they think, feel, want, hope, and fear, and it’s them knowing what’s going inside of you.
An emotionally connected couple can share their thoughts and feelings freely and vulnerably with another, knowing that their partner will support them unconditionally and without judgement. You can be completely yourself. It fosters a deep and wondrous sense of security, trust, tenderness, and commitment within your relationship.
For me, this is one of the most rewarding parts of my relationship with my partner. I can tell him anything, I can be fully and authentically me, and I know he will always love me and be there for me when I need him.
So, I as reflected on my relationship and those of my adult children, I sat down and wrote a list of ways to build a better relationship.
If you’ve noticed that you've checked out of your relationship or feel disconnected from your partner, this post is for you, because there are lots of things you can do to jumpstart your relationship and get it back on track. Furthermore, if you are in a great relationship, this post is also for you because anyone would benefit from doing the activities on the list regardless of how healthy their relationship is.
Creating the list was a good reminder to me to be even more intentional about doing some of these things in my own relationship. To make it more fun, I also created a resource of 30 ideas of easy things you can do to enhance emotional intimacy and build a better relationship. It’s called the “30-day Love Challenge” and you can DOWNLOAD IT HERE.
Take the 30-day Love Challenge
Before you start the 30-day love challenge, give your relationship a grade. It can be a 6 out of 10 or a 75% - whatever system works best for you. Now set a goal for where you'd like to be.
Try to do as many things on the list below (or the download) as you can during the next 30-days. Hopefully, your partner will be willing to do these with you. If not, you can initiate or do the activity yourself.
After 30 days. re-evaluate your relationship's grade. Hopefully, it went up. It likely didn't reach your targeted goal level, because great relationships take work and effort. You will need to consistently do things over time to strengthen your emotional intimacy, but doing it for the majority of 30 days is a good start. And don't beat yourself up if you have bad days because we ALL have them.
After 30 days, re-assess your relationship:
are you closer?
what activities did you like?
what ones made you feel closer?
what was easiest and why? what was hardest and why?
what ones do you want to keep doing?
is there anything missing that you want to add?
I encourage you to continue your journey toward building a close, connected, emotionally intimate relationship regardless of your score, but hopefully, your efforts resulted in feeling better about your relationship.
Drumroll ….Here is part 1 of the 30 ideas to build a better relationship. I’d love for you to do as many as you can.
1. Do something new together.
Research shows that doing something new together releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone that makes you feel connected. It can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or a new local activity or it can be trying a new hobby together. A fun idea we’ve done with friends is to go through the alphabet trying new restaurants that start with the correct letter. We ended up going to lots of places we never would have gone to and ended up having a blast.
One couple I know each made a list of local things they would each like to do, such as going to local festivals and special events, the farmers’ market, rooftop bars, happy hours, taco joints, food trucks, live music venues, sports events, concerts, local theatre, bike trails, hiking and walking trails, parks, ethnic events, tree lighting, first Fridays, art fairs, fireworks, cooking classes, local tourist destinations etc. This list included a variety of things from those that were free to those that fit their budget. They wrote them down on slips of paper and pulled one out of a jar each week for the first year they were married.
What a wonderful way to experience the great aspects of your community and share new experiences with one another.
2. Each of you plans a date night.
You can take turns planning a date night, but let whatever you plan be a surprise for your partner. Surprises build anticipation and make the activity more fun. As you plan the date night, focus on what would be most enjoyable for your partner, not you. This might require you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Your goal is to plan something that makes your partner feel special. Remember the excitement of going on a date at the beginning of the relationship? Try to recreate that energy and feeling of excitement.
Recently, I was looking at my closet and thinking about the beautiful, dressy clothes that I don't wear much anymore. I feel like we have defaulted to wearing jeans or leggings or some type of casual attire whenever we go out. I thought about how much I would enjoy dressing up to go out to dinner. So that's what I am planning for our special date night - dressing up and heading out to a nice restaurant that has the most decadent dessert which just happens to be my husband's favorite. He's never been there before so it will be a wonderful surprise!
3. Go to bed at the same time.
It’s astounding how many couples go to bed at different times. There’s always so much to do and some people need extra down time at night before heading to bed. Going to bed at the same time is a shared activity that creates a sense of closeness. It builds emotional and physical connections. You can talk and cuddle and enjoy the warmth and coziness of being in bed together. It creates a sanctuary for both of you to unwind and decompress from the stressors of the day. It’s comforting to say goodnight to your partner as you close your eyes and have their confirmation of love be the last thing you experience before going to sleep.
This is one of my favorite times of the day. I love being able to climb into bed and share little things on my mind with my partner right before we go to bed or talk about a show we just watched or something we are anticipating the following day. I love that his voice saying "I love you" is the last thing I hear before going to sleep.
4. Reminisce about good times.
Talking about good times you’ve shared is a sure-fire way to build connection and have some feel-good moments. Because starting therapy can surface difficult emotions for people, most couples’ therapists ask couples to share the story of how they met, typically at the end of the first session. That’s because couples feel closer to one another as they talk about the beginning of their relationship, when the sparks were flying and they felt intense attraction to one another. Thinking and talking about really good memories releases hormones that relax you, and make you feel happier and more connected. So for couples just starting counseling, this helps them leave their first session feeling better about their relationship.
5. Deliberately touch one another in non-sexual ways.
A lack of touch negatively impacts our physical and emotional well-being. Moreover, a lack of touch in a relationship is often a sign of disconnection. As a couples’ therapist, I notice how couple’s interact during an appointment such as whether they sit close or far apart and whether they naturally reach out to calm the other when they are upset.
Human touch is very important to our emotional well-being. Our skin is one of our biggest organs. Touch calms us down by activating the vagus nerve, slowing our heartbeat, and lowering both our blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. A simple touch triggers the release of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” which is known to increase emotional bonding to another person.
Examples of ways you can increase touch in your relationship are:
- Hug one another
- Touch your partner’s arm
- Place your hand on the small of your partner's back
- Hold hands
- Offer a neck or back massage
- Sit next to one another while you watch TV
- Cuddle on the couch or in bed
You can make a point to gently touch your partner as you slide by them in the kitchen or when they are occupied with a task. You can reach over and pat their arm or hold their hand while you are at the movie theater or other event.
Sometimes, if you haven’t engaged in any touch for a while, it can feel awkward and a bit uncomfortable at first. If you find yourself in this situation, start with little things such as light touches as you pass your partner and then work your way to more intentional touches.
6. Set aside 5-minutes to intentionally connect every day.
Our lives are so busy that it’s so easy to skip talking with our partners about the important things that help us to feel like loving partners versus roommates. When we have time to talk, it’s typically focused on administrative items such as children, the calendar, work and tasks and can feel more like a business meeting.
In my therapy practice, I recommend couples set aside 5 minutes each day for uninterrupted conversation that is not focused on administrative items. It might be over coffee in the morning or right after work or just before bed. It’s time to ask your partner how they are feeling, what they have planned for the day, what they might need help with, what they are looking forward to that day, or how their day went. This is a special time for you to slow life down and enjoy your friendship with one another.
7. Show interest in them.
Ask your partner what they have going on that day and if there is anything you could do to make their day better. Researchers and marriage experts John and Julie Gottman found that happy couples try to learn one thing about their partner’s day before they say goodbye in the morning. These can be happy things such as lunch plans with friends or unexciting or stressful things such as work responsibilities. The goal is to be curious about and show interest in your partner’s day.
This sounds like such a simple thing, but most people don’t do it. Asking your partner what you can do to make their day better communicates interest in them and a desire to show up for them in a meaningful way. Wouldn’t it feel good if someone asked you this? So, starting tomorrow, ask your partner about their day and if there’s anything you can do for them. Then, make sure you do it. And at the end of the day, check in and find out how their day went.
8. Do something unexpected & nice for your partner.
Who doesn’t like a good surprise that communicates how much they are loved? Tania Luna, co-host of the podcast Talk Psych to Me, TED speaker and author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, highlights the importance of surprise in our lives. Surprises release the hormone dopamine, which makes us feel good.
When we're surprised, our emotions intensify up to 400 percent. So if you surprise your partner with something positive, they will feel much more intense feelings of happiness and gratitude than normal. Isn’t that a wonderful way to make your partner feel special?
The great part about this is that whatever you do doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It could be as simple as any of these ideas:
- Bring them coffee while they are getting ready in the morning
- Do a household task they normally do
- Leave them a love note on their dashboard or computer
- Buy flowers, a candle or some other item that makes them feel pampered
- Make their favorite dinner or order in from their favorite restaurant
- Pack them a bag for work with their favorite snack and beverage
- Slip a love note in their lunch if they bring a lunch to work
- Fold down the covers for them
- Make the bed
- Have your children write a special note or draw a picture for them
- Buy their favorite bottle of wine or 6-pack of beer
- Plan a date or picnic, buy tickets to a show or concert that they would enjoy and hire a babysitter
The options are absolutely endless but how fun it would be to plan and shower your partner with a loving surprise.
9. Share your feelings.
Good communication is one of the most critical aspects of a healthy relationship. Poor communication is typically one of the top issues addressed in couple’s counseling. “He/she doesn’t listen to me,” “She/he tells me what to do,” “I don’t feel seen,” “I never know what he/she’s thinking.” “If they loved me, they would (fill in the blank),” “I feel criticized” and “he/she doesn’t get me” are all comments many couples say in therapy and are all rooted in poor communication.
Sharing your feelings is a large part of communication. It helps your partner to understand you and helps you feel understood by them, which makes you feel closer. It’s important to use language such as “I feel” and not blaming language such as “You make me feel.” Whenever we start a sentence with the word “you,” it puts the other person on the defensive.
The other important thing to note when sharing feelings is how you respond to one another. The best response is one that is empathetic. For a quick primer on empathy, watch this great video of a couple having a conversation, It’s Not About the Nail,” and this video explaining empathy by Brene´Brown. An empathetic response can simple be something such as “That sounds really hard” or “It sounds like you feel really sad/glad/mad/disappointed etc.” Empathy communicates that you are in it with your partner and that you respect how they are feeling. It’s not sympathy or pity.
Many people have a difficult time recognizing their feelings and sharing them. So as you try this challenge, consider starting with something you feel good about. Examples are: “I felt happy when …” “I was excited when ...” “I felt really special when…” Once both of you are good at sharing these types of emotions, you can take small steps into sharing more difficult feelings such as “I felt sad when ….” “I was upset when …” “I felt frustrated when …”. Just remember, don’t start with the word “you.”
10. Check in with one another during the day.
Checking in with one another is a great way to build a better relationship. Checking in communicates caring and that you are thinking about your partner. It can be as simple as texting "I love you" or “I was thinking about you. Hope you are having a good day.” The other wonderful thing about a simple check-in is that it can be a pleasant surprise for your partner, so it can intensify their feelings.
One word of advice … if you check in with your partner, consider it a gift and don’t expect a response, and don’t follow up with a text that says “did you get my text?” They may be busy and unable to respond or expressing emotion may be a growth area for them. If you watch your phone for a response after you text your partner, it can set you up for feelings of disappointment.
11. Go for a walk together.
Going for a walk is such a simple way to improve your relationship and it's a wonderful thing to do together. You can include your dog for extra bonus points. Beside being good for your relationship, walking has many positive health benefits. It decreases stress levels, energizes you and has been shown to improve memory. A 2016 study shows that walking may be good for your mood.
Walking is relaxing and pleasurable and it’s a great time to talk with one another or just be together. Intentionally walking together prioritizes spending time with one another. Another benefit of a walk is that it is uninterrupted time with one another. Kids or technology won’t interrupt your conversation. It’s also an excellent time to work out a disagreement or something that is bothering you because it boosts your mood and affords an opportunity to be side-by-side versus face-to-face for a discussion.
According to sociologist Dr. Harry Brod, who was regarded as an expert in masculinity studies, men typically prefer a side-by-side shoulder orientation for conversation.
“Numerous studies have established that men are more likely to define emotional closeness as working or playing side-by-side, while women often view it as talking face-to-face.”
For men, walking may provide a more natural and comfortable setting to enjoy conversation with their partners.
However, you don’t need to talk on a walk to experience a positive benefit in your relationship. A 2020 study found walking side-by-side, even without speaking, resulted in walking partners having a better impression of one another.
So walking has many positive impacts from health benefits to improved communication to better relationship connection. That’s enough to make you want to lace up your favorite shoes and head out the door!
And with that, I think I will put on my tennis shoes and invite my partner to join me on a walk.
Please stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post for the remaining ways to improve your relationship.
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