As a Marriage Therapist, couples come to see me with a wide array of goals. Generally, they want to resolve their conflicts, stop fighting, get better connected, and well…be happier!

I don’t have a Happiness Magic Wand, but I have gathered some information about how to help over the years. Below are seven components that will get you on your way toward a happier, intimate relationship with your beloved.

1) Practice Good Communication

This is the bread and butter of couple’s therapy. Most of us know that we need to get better at communicating with our partners. Typically, couples are locked in a dysfunctional pattern where they are triggering one another’s defenses, and nobody feels heard. A common complaint is that one partner shuts down and refuses to communicate and the other expands their energy getting louder and louder. Eventually, the whole system breaks down, leaving both with frustration, pain, and a sense of hopelessness about how to resolve their differences.

Couples learn how to slow down in my office and at my retreats. They learn to listen to one another with a deeper understanding of where the other is coming from. I help them to develop a culture of acceptance and empathy between them. Validation is the conveyed message that your partner makes sense to you. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree. Rather, it means that you’re in their world listening to understand. This is healing and typically makes us feel closer.

In his research, Dr. John Gottman found that successful couples eliminate “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when communicating. These include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, or refusing to talk about things. Instead, he recommends that you replace criticism with a gentle start-up. An example would be, “honey, something is bothering me. Do you have a minute to listen to what I need to feel better?” Defensiveness is replaced with taking responsibility. Contempt is replaced with a focus on gratitude and appreciation in the relationship. Stonewalling can be thwarted when both individuals learn to self-soothe, rather than recklessly allowing reactivity into their relationship. This might include meditation, journaling, walks, or breathing exercises.

2) Connect at the Four Critical Moments of Each Day

Also, from Dr. Gottman’s research comes the value of paying attention to each other whenever the two of you are coming or going. This includes when you wake up in the morning, when leaving for the activities of the day, when you return to one another, and before going to sleep at night. This connection can include eye contact, kind words, 20-second hugs, and six-second kisses. How many of us are guilty of passing one another like ships in the night? True, meaningful connection at key moments can make all the difference in your levels of happiness with one another.

3) Focus your Attention

We live in a frenzied world. Technology grabs our attention in the form of our phones, social media, TV, and emails. We have busy jobs, demanding children, and need to work out! No wonder we don’t give one another enough focused attention. And yet, most of us would feel happier if our partners would prioritize our relationship with them a bit. I coach couples to pull up two chairs and gaze fondly into each other’s eyes for about five minutes. In this position, you can hold hands and breathe deeply without any distractions. Schedule time together. Date nights are commonly known to be important for a couple, but I also recommend scheduling sex if it’s the only way you get around to paying attention to that part of your relationship. What, schedule time for sex? Yes, scheduling a sex date can help you to prioritize your time together and give you something to look forward to!

4) Give Surprises

Esther Perel, Psychotherapist and Bestselling Author, tells us that novel experiences promote the release of dopamine in the brain. Without dopamine, we get bored and unhappy. Surprising one another is exciting and romantic. You can create a surprise by sending cards, offering unexpected gifts, planning outings, or doing an act of service that the other wasn’t expecting.
These can be little, daily things. You don’t need to plan a 100-person birthday party or whisk your partner to Paris for the weekend. Start simple and watch for how your partner responds.
I’m willing to bet that they’ll be pleasantly surprised and feel happy that you thought of them.

5) Express Appreciation and Gratitude

You literally cannot express too much appreciation and gratitude to your partner. Sharing daily appreciation builds goodwill and trains your brain to override our natural negative bias.
You see, we are fundamentally wired for survival. Looking for the negative and scanning for problems helps us to avoid danger and to survive. Survival is an individual pursuit. Being happy in our primary relationships requires going from surviving to thriving. One way to thrive as a couple is to consciously introduce the expression of gratitude.

When appreciating your partner, make it a three-step process: 1) what you appreciate, 2) what it means to you, and 3) how it makes you feel. For example, rather than “thanks for loading the dishwasher” you could say, “I appreciate that you loaded the dishwasher. It shows me that you recognize how busy I’ve been this week with work. It made me feel supported”. Make it a daily habit to express at least one appreciation in this format. Wouldn’t it be nice to end your day together hearing what you did right?

Another, longer exercise for expressing gratitude is the Four-Minute Monthly Ritual. Sit across from one another close enough to hold hands. Set a timer for four minutes. While gazing into each other’s eyes, one partner showers the other with all that they are grateful for about them. This can be about how they look, personality traits, values, behaviors, or anything else that makes your life better. At the end of four minutes, the listener says the two things they liked hearing the best. Then switch places and do it again. This ritual can be set on your smartphone as a monthly occurrence. This is bound to make you feel happier. When you get in the habit of looking for what you appreciate, you begin to see it more often and clearly.

6) Engage in Affection and Sensual Touch

Touch is one of the things that distinguishes romantic partners from roommates. Some of us grew up in households with parents who hugged and kissed each other and us. Others not so much. If reaching out to touch your partner is challenging, this is an area to approach slowly.
Try just sitting on the couch together while watching television with just one part of you in contact with the other. This can be holding hands or just sitting close enough so that your thighs or shoulders touch. Research shows that when we graduate to kissing and hugging, we release the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Affection shows us that we are loved and that makes us happier.

Sensual touch is a bit more than affection. It involves exploring your partner’s body including the head and neck, chest, belly, back, buttocks, arms, hands, legs, and feet. It can be about bonding, showing care, and relaxing. It builds physical intimacy and is often a precursor to sexual interaction.

Affectionate and sensual touch also confer physiological benefits. In one study, partners were found to have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, on days when they enjoyed higher levels of physical touch like hand holding or hugging.

7) Manage Relational Leaks

Imagine drawing the two of you as overlapping circles. Then draw a larger oval around these two circles representing you. The larger oval is the boundary of your relationship. It’s what holds the energy between you. In a loving relationship, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves “where am I going to put my energy”?

There are many reasons why we might choose not to engage with our partner about something, and at those times we find ways to turn away from the relationship and put our energy into something else. The something else could be shopping, the computer, alcohol, drugs, social media, or even excessive time with family or friends. We call those places where we put our attention and our energy elsewhere to avoid difficult feelings in our relationship, “Relational Energy Leaks”. Those things in themselves are not necessarily a problem. But when we choose to put our energy there instead of turning towards our partner, we are making a very significant choice that will disconnect us and make us unhappy.

To maximize the positive energy in your relationship, it’s important to learn how to nourish the space between you and keep the energy juicy. In that way, we manage our relational leaks and create more shared happiness.

So, although there may not be a Happiness Magic Wand, you can see that there are several conscious practices that you and your partner can incorporate into your relationship to increase your levels of happiness. A loving, safe, intimate relationship can lower rates of anxiety and depression, increase self-esteem, develop greater empathy, and make your relationship more trusting and intimate. Strong, healthy relationships can even strengthen your immune system, help you recover from disease, and may even lengthen your life.

Author's Bio: 

Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, has been working with couples and families for over 30 years in her private practice in West Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about helping couples improve their communication skills, deepen their connection, resolve conflict, and rediscover the joy of being together. She offers weekly sessions, Private and Group Intensives and Workshops for Couples. She is active in preparing engaged couples for marriage through several different formats, including The FOCCUS Premarital Inventory and Start Right, Stay Connected Workshops. Her Ebook entitled, 8 Essential Topics to Discuss Before Saying I Do, is available on her website.

Mary Kay has two Advanced Certifications, in Couples Therapy: Imago Relationship Therapy and Encounter-Centered Couples Therapy. She is an active member of the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Los Angeles Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, IMAGO North America Relationship Institute, and the Southern California Imago Therapy Association.