As told to Anna Maxted, The Times, Saturday, February 12, 2022.
Random acts of kindness are wonderful — but appreciation matters more
In successful couples, there’s a commitment to truly appreciating the other partner. Of course, we know it matters to be kind to one another — but I’ve noticed with couples it’s appreciation that is often so lacking.
This is something we all crave. It’s so easy to take our partner for granted without meaning to. When you wave a coffee cup at your beloved while you’re mid-Zoom call, you’d better mime undying gratitude.
We are all sensitive people and we respond well to praise. So ask yourself, “How do I make my partner feel valued?” Good relationships are all about giving — you then receive from the other person, but you don’t take.
Happy couples make an effort with their appearance
No one is insisting on top hat and tails or immaculate hair. But if you think neglecting your looks is fine in your relationship, I have bad news.
I’m afraid I’m mainly talking to men here. In my experience with couples, men are more likely to be the offenders in this area.
Put it this way, how would you feel if your partner had a beer belly, rarely brushed their teeth and dressed only in sweatpants? Would you find that attractive?
And if your answer is, “I wouldn’t care,” that’s a worry. I know in my practice when a relationship is dead because there’s indifference.
Relive your youth
If you and your partner discover you share a joy of wild swimming or potholing, you’ll know it brings novelty and passion to the relationship. When therapists urge couples to try a new activity or adventure, they hope to create opportunity for fresh and genuine connection.
But rediscovery doesn’t always come from the new. It can emerge from going back too — revisiting a place that’s meaningful because it’s where you met or had your first date.
For some of us that means booking a surprise dinner table, for others a meeting somewhere less glamorous but full of warm memories.
If the first time you went out was on a picnic, why not set up a picnic in your living room, with a bunch of wildflowers? Do something that reconnects you to a time when things were good between you.
Flirting is an oxygen hit to your relationship. When you’ve been together a while, practicalities, mundanities and chores can squeeze out the fun.
But you fell in love because sparks flew and you brought out the best in each other. We grow old when we don’t play.
Flirting, whether a lingering touch or outrageous banter, is a way of being playful in the relationship. Who doesn’t warm to a little light teasing from their partner?
If you’re weary, frazzled, grumpy, flirting is the lightest antidote. It makes you feel desired, important, the focus of attention.
● How to make the honeymoon phase last for ever
● How to love well, according to the editor of Modern Love
The importance of kissing
There’s something so sweet about kissing. And while a fairytale kiss is uplifting, a kiss on the shoulder or hand is a wonderful little soft connection.
It’s a spontaneous sign of your affection, an indication that you want your partner to know you are there for them — and that’s the most beautiful part of it.
Whether you kiss to congratulate or commiserate or just because it’s giving something of yourself to your partner. No wonder that one small gesture can change the direction of your entire day.
Overlook the small annoyances. Is a sock on the floor so bad?
It’s tough, living with and loving another human. Happy couples choose their battles. If you nitpick or bicker over every single little thing, there’s something wrong with the relationship, or the state of mind of those in it. But then, we can’t be tolerant, compassionate, understanding all the time.
Sometimes life and stress get the better of us. So — talk about it. Pettiness and bickering are profoundly unattractive. Usually, the issue is not the socks or the towel on the floor, but a deeper resentment or hurt.
Let your partner know how you feel. If it really is the socks on the floor, then explain, factually, without anger or high emotion, why this bothers you. I know in some couples it can make one partner feel as though they don’t matter.
Ideally, the response would be something along the lines of, “Thank you for telling me how you feel. I’m going to work on that. Now I understand better.” (We can dream! Or learn.)
Passive aggression — the biggest turn-off
In a loving long-term relationship, people tend to behave like emotionally functional adults. This includes verbally expressing yourself in a reasonable way most of the time, even if hurt.
This means resentments don’t fester. It takes courage to say how hurt you are because it makes you feel vulnerable. Men especially can find this a problem. But in a good relationship, being honest in this way can foster intimacy.
The opposite of this is passive aggression: it’s communicating your anger or hurt through behaviour — which may be sullen, passively obstructive or slyly spiteful.
People are passive-aggressive because they don’t dare to admit that they feel hurt, and they want to inflict hurt.
They feel powerless, but this gives them power. It also makes their partner insecure, frustrated, angry, bored and ultimately spells doom. It slowly eats away at the relationship.
Spend time apart — there’s no need to be joined at the hip
If you live nose-to-nose all the time, constantly checking for your partner’s agreement, habitually doing everything together, that’s not intimacy, it’s suffocation.
When you become an extension of each other, when you can’t “live” without the other and there’s no separation, it kills every ounce of excitement or spark. It can really get in the way of a good sex life. We’re always looking for connection, but this is a negative connection where you’re smothering one another.
When you spend time apart and on your own interests and friends, it feeds the relationship. You always have something to discuss. It means you are not always reliant on the other person and you stay interesting. You’re still curious about each other. It fuels passion too.
Sex reconnects you, whether you’ve been physically separate or had a blazing row (after the emotional vulnerability of an argument, sex is a strong way of re-establishing your closeness).
Take an occasional mini-break (no kids allowed)
A weekend away, just the two of you, is a gift to the relationship. Of course, with no children in the vicinity you can have spontaneous and uninterrupted sex. But it’s not just about that.
It’s about carving out space for yourselves — and the fact that you value the relationship enough to do so. It gives you the opportunity to check in with each other in a way that we often don’t have time for in daily life.
It’s rare that we talk about where we are, who we are, our shared goals, how we communicate or resolve conflict. These weekends are good times to discuss where you want to go, what you can do better for each other, what your needs are, as well as having fun (clothes optional).
But why wait for the biannual weekend — if you both have crazy diaries, why not schedule a walk together once a week to chat and check in with each other?
Intimacy outside the bedroom is just as important as sex
We want to be intimate with our partner, but this should not just be during sex. Some of us aren’t naturally tactile so find hugging and holding hands unnatural. So what to do when labrador puppy meets hedgehog?
A successful couple can create intimacy by understanding that both partners have their unique emotional language and mutual respect and understanding of difference is how they become closer.
It may be that talking and laughing together is your route to intimacy. Laughing together is the secret ingredient to a good relationship. Finding out about each other — when your partner wants to know how they can reach you — creates true and powerful intimacy.
Put down your phone — it’s a passion killer
When you’re sitting in that restaurant or at the dinner table at home, your eyes flit to your phone and you interrupt your beloved mid-sentence while you take this call, or answer that text . . . it does somewhat indicate that there are more important things in your life than dinner with your loved one.
We all live in the real world, but if you frequently do this while your partner waits, at least offer them the small courtesy of an explanation, possibly in advance if you expect to be disturbed, so they don’t feel taken for granted.
There aren’t many people who would get fired if they switched off their phone for the evening. Don’t get fired from your relationship.
Yes, you can have great sex after decades together
Many long-term couples get into the old perfunctory performance — it’s easy to do after years and years in a relationship. I’ve never met a couple who have been happy about this.
The long-term couples who are having a more exciting sex life don’t have special powers. At some point they made a decision to raise their game.
I always advise that this needs to happen in and out of the bedroom. We’re unlikely to initiate sex, or try out new moves, if we fear rejection or that our partner will judge us for our needs or desires.
Couples in contented long-term relationships learn to derive pleasure from giving their partner pleasure.