“Couples fell into routines that became a more casual way to relate to each other,” said Damona Hoffman, a dating coach in Los Angeles and the host of the podcast Dates & Mates. “We couldn’t do a date night out or many of the activities we normally would have done to get us out of a funk or give us a change of scenery.”
The pandemic also “accelerated people’s vulnerabilities, their ineffectual communication skills and their ability to disagree successfully,” said Morgan Cutlip, a psychologist and relationship consultant in San Clemente, California.
Cutlip, who also develops content for Love Thinks, a company in Orange County, California, that offers relationship courses and resources, added that “some couples were more equipped at resolving an argument or were able to communicate their needs successfully. Others were not, and that can erode relationships.”
To help improve intimacy and romance with your partner in the new year, here are four key strategies to consider, according to relationship experts.
SAY GOODBYE TO LAST YEAR
Before couples can look toward a positive new year, they need to have closure with the one that is ending, said Julie Schwartz Gottman, a psychologist and a founder of the Gottman Institute, a Seattle company that helps couples build and maintain healthy relationships.
“People have gone through life-changing circumstances and are shepherding themselves and their kids through situations no one has seen before,” Gottman said. “They didn’t have a chance to examine the inner landscape of their relationship and build or rebuild connection.”
As couples look ahead, Gottman suggests they ask each other what she calls “big, open-ended questions.” They include: What were the highlights or big moments of joy you experienced? What were the lowest points and what was that like for you? How can we make meaning from what we’ve gone through? What are the lessons we are taking from this year? What changed in your belief system, priorities or values, and how did you arrive at them?
“Answering these questions together,” Gottman said, “will allow the relationship to stand outside of time as a team. It highlights what you have suffered through, survived, triumphed and learned.”
The answers will also help each person understand how their partner has changed from a year ago, she said, “and how you can be more supportive to each other going forward, because now you know where the vulnerabilities are.”
SAY HELLO TO THE NEW YEAR
“Couples need a sense of hope and what to look forward to when navigating through and preparing for the upcoming year,” said Anthony L. Chambers, chief academic officer and a family and couples psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Optimism and intimacy can be found in list-making, Chambers said, especially for achieving goals.
“When couples collectively consider how they want the upcoming year to look, it creates an intentional, shared vision while increasing connection and alignment,” he said, adding that a list of goals can often evolve. “Your list might take several conversations and get-togethers to create.”
In considering goals, Chambers recommended including “big-ticket items” that can be determined by answering questions like: How are you going to spend time together? How do you want to reconnect with family and friends you might not have seen because of the pandemic? Are you comfortable traveling? What hopes do you have for your children and for each other? What are you going to do to keep your relationship a priority? What are your financial objectives and purchases?
If differences and strong opinions creep in, Chambers said that both partners should come to the table with an equal amount of compromise and flexibly.
“The central task of marriage is the management of differences,” he said. “Acknowledging each other’s concerns and differences is a positive way to start.”
SAY HELLO TO EACH OTHER
“We tend to only talk when we think something is wrong,” Cutlip said. “That’s why it’s important couples commit to finding time to check in with each other to see how each person is doing and if their needs are being met.”
Cutlip recommended that couples meet twice a month for 20 minutes at the same time and place, ideally in a quiet location at home, avoiding the bedroom because, she said, “If the meeting takes a turn, you don’t want that vibe where you sleep.” Couples should put these meetings in their calendars, Cutlip added, and “start with something positive, maybe something that went well or how you are thriving at something as a couple.”
She also suggested couples ask each other: What are some things you need from me? What would we like to adjust or remove?
“Perhaps there’s something you want to incorporate into the relationship that will make you feel closer and more connected,” Cutlip said. “This helps protect and prioritize the relationship.”
She added, “If something larger or problematic is going on, set a specific time to discuss that.”
Cutlip advised ending these meetings with an expression of appreciation, like telling your partner how they enhance your life and showing some affection.
“Give them a hug or kiss,” she said. “You want to make them feel valued.”
SAY YES TO RITUALS
It is important to have something to look forward to and initiate romantic moments, according to Hoffman.
“They create anticipation, increase endorphins and boost adrenaline,” she said.
Hoffman recommended establishing a planned weekly ritual. Easy at-home activities like streaming a movie, reading together in bed or cooking a meal are a good place to start. A night out, if a couple is so inclined, works just as well — you can explore a new restaurant, nearby neighborhood or museum.
“These repeated activities, which are a commitment and an intention you’ve set and scheduled together, create positive emotions you will associate with your partner,” Hoffman said. “They will remind you why you’re with them while reinforcing the partnership and the romantic side of your relationship.”
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