3 Practical Tips for Building a Strong Relationship

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you find yourself sunken neck-deep in argument and communication issues with your partner? How do you stop making avoidable errors and start building a strong relationship?

We all have our character flaws, and so do our loved ones. The key to building a strong relationship is to focus on your partner’s good qualities instead of their less-than-perfect traits or irritating habits.

In this article, we’ll discuss some practical tips on how to lay a strong foundation for your relationship.

How to Keep Your Relationship Strong: Skills for Life

Even if you have a strong relationship, you can always find ways to make it even stronger and happier. Strong, happy relationships contribute to overall happiness and life satisfaction by giving you the companionship and support that you need through day-to-day and major life events. 

Like anyone, both you and your partner are a combination of wonderful qualities and irritating habits. You can’t change who your partner is and can’t argue their irritating habits out of them. Focusing instead on your partner’s good qualities makes their irritating habits more tolerable and naturally decreases bickering. 

First, we’ll focus on how to avoid negativity when it comes to household tasks, and then we’ll discuss how to better communicate with and show appreciation for your partner.

1) Avoid Negativity in Household Tasks

Household tasks are a source of much bickering in long-term relationships. There are two significant ways to cut down on these negative feelings: Stop nagging and don’t expect acknowledgment.

Stop Nagging

Nagging is a tempting habit because it feels that if you do it just enough, your partner will start automatically doing what you want—but it doesn’t work this way. It just creates resentment for both parties. 

Commit to holding back whenever you want to nag. If the task at hand is time-sensitive, do it yourself. If it’s not time-sensitive, allow it to happen on your partner’s timeline. This will very likely be uncomfortable for you, and you may feel a bit resentful at the beginning if you need to do tasks yourself or tasks aren’t getting done when you want. But Rubin’s experience reveals that the overall pleasant mood that’s maintained in the absence of nagging far outweighs the initial discomfort of holding your tongue.

If you find yourself nagging frequently, there are several ways to reframe your thinking and behaviors to avoid it.

  • Try to create a non-verbal reminder of the task. A note left on the counter is often less grating than a pestering voice. 
  • Try making one-word reminders, which might be better received than a drawn-out reminder—for example, instead of saying, “Remember to fix the sink today. You promised yesterday but it’s still broken,” you could simply say, “Sink, please!” 
  • Keep in mind that the majority of tasks are not urgent—don’t expect your partner to operate on your ideal schedule. 
  • In a similar vein, don’t complain if a task isn’t being done your way—asking someone to do something for you, and then criticizing how they do it quickly creates resentment.
  • Avoid the “I know better than you” nag—don’t pester your partner to do things that you think are best for them. They can figure it out themselves. For example, don’t continually nag your partner to bring a jacket to the restaurant in case they get cold. If they choose not to bring a jacket, that’s their own problem. 

Be sure that you’re consistently noticing how your partner does contribute. Many people significantly overestimate how much they personally contribute to group efforts. It’s likely that your partner is doing just as much housework as you, but you’re not noticing it. For example, you cook and clean the dishes every night, but don’t notice that your partner takes over cleaning the apartment top to bottom every week.  

Don’t Expect Acknowledgement 

While you work on noticing what your partner does around the house, don’t expect that everything you do will be noticed and appreciated. Expecting praise and acknowledgment often creates resentment—either because you don’t get it, you don’t get as much as you think you deserve, or it’s not given in a way that’s meaningful to you. If you stop expecting praise and acknowledgment, you’ll feel less resentful. 

It’s helpful to reframe your thinking—instead of doing things for others, do things for yourself. For example, while cleaning up after dinner you might tell yourself, “I’m cleaning up the kitchen tonight because I want to wake up to a clean house.” This thinking frees you from the need to be acknowledged and praised by others, and because you’re not expecting someone to react in a specific way you avoid the disappointment that comes on the heels of an underwhelming reaction.

2) Communicate Fairly

Fair and conscientious communication keeps negative interactions and resentment in relationships to a minimum, clearing space for positive exchanges. Strong relationships rely on fair and positive communication.

Fight With Courtesy 

Conflict is natural in a long-term relationship. It’s important to approach conflict with an argumentative style that’s relatively positive. This is because humans have a negativity bias—that is, we focus much more on negative emotions and experiences than positive. It usually takes five positive interactions in a relationship to offset just one negative interaction. Having arguments in a productive, positive way keeps them from contributing to the negative interaction count. Furthermore, negative arguments can make you feel guilty or irritable which leads to more negative interactions and unhappiness. 

Studies show that there are six key elements of positive and productive arguments.

  1. Approach one problem at a time. Don’t use issues from the past as artillery in the present. 
  2. Start arguments as a calm discussion, instead of exploding suddenly and angrily. 
  3. Avoid absolutes, such as “you never…” or “I always…”
  4. Use words and actions that prevent escalation—you may avoid the phrase, “You’re just like your mother,” or fold your hands to keep from—literally—pointing fingers. 
  5. Recognize that external factors might be affecting your partner. We tend to overlook how others’ circumstances influence their behavior. For example, your wife’s sudden anger about the cost of car repairs may be stemming from a recent announcement about layoffs at work.
  6. Know how to end arguments, instead of letting them drag on—perhaps one of you goes for a run to calm down, or you agree to sleep on it. 

Navigate Differences in Intimacy Needs 

Men and women tend to express intimacy differently. While women associate intimacy with face-to-face interactions, men associate intimacy with working or playing alongside their partner. Both are important shared moments, but they look and feel incredibly different. It’s possible your partner won’t engage in intimacy the same way you want to. 

  • For example, you may feel frustrated that your partner wants to talk while you’re content just doing work next to them—but they’re frustrated that you won’t engage in a heart-to-heart conversation.

Having different intimacy needs than her husband, Rubin discovered the importance of building female support systems outside the relationship. These support systems give you an outlet for conversations about problems and insecurities and reduce the friction that arises when you want support that your partner isn’t able to provide. 

This isn’t to say your partner is completely off the hook—at times, they should put effort into engaging in intimate chats and being the listener you want them to be. But, if your partner is regularly disengaged, take time to think about why

  • For example, your partner may not want to talk about your anxiety because it makes them sad, or they might not engage with your rant about work because they’re completely unfamiliar with the field. 

Besides avoiding touchy subjects, avoid unloading trivial complaints and irritations on them. This is important because moods are contagious in relationships—when you approach your partner with a collection of gripes and negativity, they’ll naturally mirror your emotions. When you’re about to complain to your partner, think about if your complaint could be more positive—or if it needs to be said at all.

  • For example, instead of saying, “My boss always dumps tasks on me while she goes out for long lunches. I can’t stand it,” you might try, “My boss is giving me a lot more responsibility at work. I understand it might give me a boost for next year’s promotions, but I’m finding it challenging.” 

Taking this extra step to reduce the spread of unhappiness can help maintain overall positive feelings in your relationship. 

3) Show Love

The last element to strengthening your relationship is showing love, which is all too easy to forget in long-term relationships. How much love you feel doesn’t matter unless your partner sees it. Focus on actions that clearly show your love and appreciation. Rubin found that over time, small affirmations of affection shift interactions into a consistently loving tone. Some of these small actions might include saying “I love you” more, hugging your partner more, and sending messages just to let your partner know you’re thinking of them.

Of course, the most effective way to show people that you care is to pay attention to how they show their care—these actions are what truly mean “love” to them. For example, you may notice that your spouse loves to throw big parties for any of his friends’ big occasions, always sets a fun theme, and thinks of very personal and thoughtful gifts. For his 30th birthday, you organize a huge party with his friends. Everyone dresses as a character from his favorite film franchise, and you gift him a huge scrapbook of pictures and written memories from the past 30 years that everyone contributed to.

Put Your Methods to the Test

Try a week of being as nice as possible to your partner. If you feel the need to nag or argue with your partner, try reframing your thoughts. Instead of focusing on what’s irritating you, reflect on what you love and appreciate about your partner. Building a strong relationship takes work, and you’ll need to actively apply these methods every day.

  • For example, your partner calls you to tell you they forgot to go to the grocery store, and won’t be able to pick up the ingredients you wanted for tonight’s dinner. They offer to pick up pad thai, your favorite, on the way home. Instead of feeling irritated by their forgetfulness, appreciate that they found a solution that centers on your preferences.
3 Practical Tips for Building a Strong Relationship

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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