Love isn’t all retro Julia Roberts flicks and recent Taylor Swift songs. Researchers in clinical white lab coats have dissected just about every aspect of relationships, from communication to sex to whose turn it is to do the damn dishes. Scientists have discovered, for instance, that the happiest couples tend to be matchy-matchy: They share household chores, drink the same amount of alcohol and are equally thrifty or money-blowing.
If you’re looking for more than a summer fling in the months ahead, use these science-backed secrets to build a happy, long-lasting relationship.
When it comes to relationship satisfaction, shared laughter is best. In a recent study, couples were asked to reminisce about their first meeting while researchers recorded every chuckle, giggle and belly laugh (aww). Couples who laughed together—rather than separately or not at all—reported better relationship quality and closeness.
1. Don’t stop at laughter.
Share in your partner’s elation if they come home with good news. Couples can capitalize on moments of everyday achievement. Research suggests that responding with enthusiasm to your partner’s good times is as important as—maybe even more important than—supporting them during tough times.
Let’s say your partner comes home and says, “I’m heading up a new project at work!” Researchers suggest you can respond, “That’s great! How did it happen? What did your co-workers say? Let’s go out and celebrate with vegan ice cream!”*
Follow these basic steps: show enthusiasm, ask questions, congratulate your partner and relive the positive experience with them.
*Okay, we might have tweaked that last line.
2. Be smarter with your smartphone
In general, smartphones are romance kryptonite. A US survey of nearly 500 adults illustrated the impact of what researchers call partner “phubbing”: phone snubbing. This can be as simple as glancing at your phone while chatting with your partner. Phubbing created conflict for 23 percent of couples in the study.
Fortunately, the solution is simple: Keep your phone out of sight at least some of the time.
But wait: Our phones help us stay in touch with our partners throughout the day. That’s a good thing, right? Sure—but when it comes to texting or messaging, keep messages short and sweet. Avoid apologizing, working out differences or making decisions via text.
To turn your smartphone habit into a positive part of your relationship, try apps like Couple or Happy Couple (yep, there’s a trend in the app naming scheme). Couple allows you and your boo to privately share photos and messages, build to-do lists and even “thumb kiss” by placing your thumbs on the same spot on your respective screens. Happy Couple helps deepen your relationship through quiz-style games created by a couples therapist.
3. Get angry, but fight right
Angry outbursts seem like the makings of a bad romance, so it’s no surprise that many couples try to avoid conflict. Research, however, shows that angry but honest conversations can be better for your relationship than striving to forgive and forget immediately.
“The presence versus absence of conflict does not make or break a relationship,” says Denise Marigold, PhD, a relationship researcher. “It’s whether people deal with those conflicts constructively or destructively that’s more important.”
Besides being honest, happy couples tend to argue in ways that diffuse tension. This means showing humor or affection if possible and acknowledging when your partner makes a good point. The opposite end of the argument spectrum includes criticizing, showing contempt and rolling your eyes.
Good communication simply means being “open, honest and willing to be vulnerable,” says Marigold. “Truly listen to the other person’s perspective, even when it is difficult for you to do so. Listen without thinking about what point you’re going to make next.”
Aim for a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions. For every criticism or argument, aim for five positive interactions, like a hug, a compliment or playful teasing.
4. Get busy (in the bedroom)
More frequent sex has been linked to higher relationship quality. However, simply having more sex doesn’t necessarily make couples happier. The reason for having sex seems to be key (are you doing it out of a sense of desire or out of a sense of duty?).
Communication is the key when it comes to good quality intimacy. If work and family demands get in the way, schedule a time that works for both of you.
If flagging libido or issues with sexual function are what’s thwarting your sex life, consider natural aids. Ask your health care practitioner about the following sexy supplements.
Men may want to take:
- l-arginine, which has been shown to improve some men’s erections
- Panax ginseng, which researchers have found can improve sexual function in men with mild to moderate erectile dysfunction (ED)
- niacin, which may help raise HDL—“good” cholesterol—in men with high cholesterol and ED
Important supplements for women include:
- puncture vine, aka Tribulus terrestris, which may benefit women with low sexual desire disorder
- maca, which may help women who have low sex drives as a side effect of antidepressant use
- iron, which may improve arousal and lubrication in women who lack this nutrient
5. Get busy (out and about)
Bored by the same old dinner and Netflix routine every Friday night? Get out of the rut. One study of married couples found that boredom strongly predicted low marriage satisfaction nine years later.
New experiences activate the brain’s reward systems—not unlike the rush of new love. Make date night exciting by cooking together, attending an art show or traveling somewhere new.
Meeting new people—especially other couples—is another good idea. After conducting more than 400 interviews, researchers concluded that couples who befriend other couples experience a boost in relationship happiness.
The main takeaway is that relationships take effort. As Marigold says, “Be kind to each other, even when you feel hurt or disappointed or angry. Act in a loving way even when you don’t feel loving.”
Sweat together, stay together? It seems so. A recent study found that couples who exercised together reported more positive marital events and fewer negative events. Plus, they had higher marital satisfaction rates on the days when they exercised together. Burpees for bae!
True love = true health
Researchers have found that middle-aged women in very satisfying marriages or common-law relationships have a lower risk for heart disease than those in less-than-awesome marriages. And while rough patches are normal in any relationship, it’s worth taking steps to nip them in the bud: The negative health effects of marital strain become greater as we get older.