Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy, believes that relationships don’t require hard work. They do require “attention and intention.”
She likens a relationship to a plant. In order to stay healthy, a plant requires daily attention and care, such as water and sunlight. Taking care of a plant isn’t difficult, but “it does require nourishment.”
Bush has written a book with her husband Daniel Arthur Bush, Ph.D, called 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage: Advice to Recharge and Reconnect Every Day.
What makes a happy union?
“A happy marriage has two people who love each other very much and are committed to bringing out the best in each other.” For instance, if your partner is struggling with an issue at work, you listen to them, talk about the situation and ask how you can support them, she said. “You basically have each other’s back.”
A happy marriage also has a climate of positive energy, which includes gratitude and appreciation, she said.
Habits can either create or destroy this positive climate. “Most people might say that they don’t have any habits.” But everyone does. You just might not realize it. For instance, complaining to your partner about not taking out the trash or not preparing dinner can become a habitual complaint, she said.
Other negative habits include criticism, contempt, sarcasm, eye-rolling and distancing behaviors, she said.
“The trick is to harness healthy daily habits as opposed to destructive habits to create a positive climate” in your marriage. And these habits don’t have to be grand gestures or sweeping changes.
Bush thinks of these healthy habits as “very small, almost imperceptible, easy things to do” throughout the day. (Incorporating small habits increases the chance that you’ll actually do them.)
Below, she shared seven small but significant gestures you can incorporate in your day-to-day life.
1. Greet your partner lovingly in the morning.
When you first see your spouse, instead of having a negative or even neutral interaction, greet them with a positive statement, Bush said. It could be anything from “I’m glad to wake up beside you” to “I’m so happy to be married to you,” she said. The key is to be positive and loving.
2. Send a sweet text.
“Use modern-day technology to stay connected” throughout the day by sending your spouse a playful, flirtatious or sweet text, Bush said. Write anything from “I miss you” to “I can’t wait to see you tonight,” she said.
3. Reunite with a hug.
“Often people will reunite and it’s unconsciously thoughtless,” Bush said. For instance, partners might focus more on checking the mail or criticizing, such as “Why didn’t you cook dinner?” or “Why didn’t you take out the trash?”
Instead, any time you reunite with your partner, “have an intentional hug that lasts 20 seconds.” This is actually longer than the average hug, and it’s “long enough for oxytocin, the bonding hormone, to be released.”
4. Touch your partner at mealtime.
When you’re eating dinner together, make it a point to touch your partner. You might touch their hand or arm, or your legs might touch, she said.
5. Compliment your partner at the end of the day.
Many marriages, Bush said, suffer from chronic under-appreciation. Partners don’t feel appreciated, and they, too, don’t show their appreciation, she said. The relationship becomes clouded by a “sense of lack and taking each other for granted.”
She suggested couples end the day by thanking each other for one small act they did that day. It could be anything from “Thanks for picking up the dry cleaning” to “Thanks for making dinner” to “Thanks for hanging out with my family.”
Not only does your partner feel appreciated after your compliment, but “you start to train yourself to look for the good. You focus your attention on the things they do, not just what they don’t do.”
Also, when you go on dates, compliment each other’s appearance, she added.
6. Express your needs from a place of vulnerability.
“Often people will criticize as a way of describing their needs,” Bush said. So instead of a request, it comes out as an attack. For instance, if you’re annoyed that your spouse is on the computer, you might say, “You’re always on the computer.”
Instead, try: “I’d like to spend some time with you. Could you spend some time with me?” This invites a dialogue between partners, she said.
7. Feel each other’s breath.
This might sound like a strange practice, but it’s a powerful way to enhance your intimacy. Put your hands on each other’s chest or belly and feel your partner’s breathing, Bush said. Synch your breath together for one minute. Some couples also look into each other’s eyes.
Some days you probably won’t feel like showing appreciation or being affectionate. You might be in a miserable mood or downright exhausted. But try it anyway.
“If you do a loving behavior, you start to feel more loving,” Bush said. She likened it to feeling depressed. “You don’t want to do the things that will make you feel better. And, yet, when you do the things that make you feel better, you feel better.”
Also, keep in mind that time with your spouse is finite. People don’t realize that their relationship can end because of a divorce or death, Bush said. She works with many grieving spouses, who would “give anything for one more hug and kiss.” “[B]e willing to show up” for your relationship.