Amanda Nagy was so surprised she blacked out. The 22-year old Hoosier’s boyfriend was on one knee right in front of the Disney castle. Adorned in Minnie ears and a shirt to match, she said yes because she knew their relationship was for the long haul. “I knew he was different,” said Nagy.
Nagy isn’t alone. Many couples analyze their relationships for signs of stagnation. Researchers at the University of Illinois have identified relationship enhancement strategies that help move relationships forward. They can be used daily, weekly, or monthly.
An example strategy is assuring your partner of your commitment by doing things such as planning for a vacation said Brian Ogolsky, associate professor and researcher behind the study. This lets them know you’ll be around for that spring break trip to the beach. The strategies are correlated with positive things, said Ogolsky. We all have heard coworkers, friends, and cousins analyze their relationships. Here are three insightful situations that help you know if your relationship is moving forward. Use these as jumping-off points for that next big relationship talk!
Can you laugh it off?
When there is conflict, you find ways to make each other laugh to ease the tension. Using shared humor to de-escalate conflicts is common in successful couples, according to Don Cole, licensed marriage counselor clinical director and master trainer with Gottman Institute. Humor can be used to patch up the holes conflict causes.
Think of your relationship like a road you’re driving on. Conflict causes the car to veer off and hit bumps. “Humor gets you back on the road,” Cole said.
Nagy said she and her fiancé use humor after an argument. “One of us will crack a joke when the dust has settled and things go back to normal,” Nagy said. The jokes are usually petty apologies for their behavior that ease the tension and assure the other it wasn’t a serious fight Nagy said.
They say laughter is the best medicine, a medicine not only used after the damage is done. Many couples use humor to reframe negative experiences and to soften a partner’s emotion during conflict. This allows for the couple to continue to work through a problem constructively, according to Kale Monk, assistant professor and relationship researcher at the University of Michigan. Humor comes in with a cape and saves the day when our brains go in “fight or flight” mode, according to Monk.
The humor has to be positive. “Sarcasm doesn’t fit the bill there,” he said. Humor that is used to belittle or shame your partner can make things even worse, according to Monk.
Do you turn toward and not away?
Your partner actively responds and engages with you regularly. Successful couples are always looking for ways to interact and be responsive. This is referred to as turning toward your partner, according to Cole. A couple in a car discussing the music playing rather than just listening, is an example said Cole. Turning toward can involve asking questions and showing an interest in what your partner has to say. “The responsiveness in those mini moments are really huge,” Cole said.
Everyone knows communication is important in a relationship, but many don’t realize that how you respond to your partner is just as important as how you speak to your partner, said Monk. It’s important to take an interest and respond to our partners to show them they matter to us. Being responsive can help strengthen trust and emotional bonds in a couple according to Monk.
“It makes me feel validated if he’s looking at me and nodding or responding,” said Nagy, “versus if he’s looking at his phone.”
A relationship is a positive and negative interaction, said Cole. Turning toward your partner is a penny in the bank. “Happy couples are always making those deposits,” said Cole. Turning away from your partner is taking a nickel.
Are you having fun?
You do things you enjoy together as a couple that allow you to interact. Whether that’s a night of Netflix in bed or climbing Everest, research shows that doing activities together is important for relationships.
The high levels of interaction can help build communication and intimacy in the couple said Monk.
Mary Izquierdo said that for her and her husband of 46 years, having fun is like water for plants. “If they don’t have it, it’s hard to live,” said Izquierdo, of Venezuela. Her and her husband always try to discover fun things to do together to maintain a good relationship. They spend their mornings doing yoga in the park and most evenings at the cinema.
Don’t worry if you prefer staying at home rather than going out on a Friday. It doesn’t matter what the couple finds fun but rather that they are connected while doing the activity according to Cole. “What’s important is whatever they decide to do there’s a turning toward process,” said Cole.
“One of the best things to move forward is to do novel or exciting things together,” said Ogolsky. In the act of doing new and different things together couples often attribute the enjoyment to their partners if the activity is done together, according to Monk. Nagy and her fiancé put importance on trying new things together. “We can be with each other in new environments instead of always staying comfortable on the couch,” said Nagy.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s important to take time to check in with your partner and talk about your relationship said Monk. Relationship talks can be nerve racking but not when it’s over a glass of wine or a board game. Ask what is going well in your relationship. This allows for partners to focus more on doing those positive actions Monk said. “If you are investing more time into doing things that your partner enjoys that are positive for your relationship, then there is naturally often less time for the negative.”