Maintaining a fulfilling and long-lasting partnership takes work...and that was before the pandemic. After a year of being cooped up together (combined with anxious sleep, stress and lack of childcare), staying happily married feels like even more of a challenge. (Has your spouse always been this messy? Why do they have to sip their coffee so damn loudly?) And while we know that more time spent on date nights and soul-baring conversations will help, the truth is that we just don’t have the energy for either these days. What if there was an easier way to strengthen your bond... say just with a few words? We tapped psychotherapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling for the phrases she wishes couples would use more frequently.
1. “I appreciate you.”
Whether you’ve been together for two years or twenty, it’s easy to take each other for granted. And that’s bad news for your relationship (but you knew that already). “If your partner does something unexpected—notice and appreciate it,” advises Dr. Smerling. And the same rules apply for the everyday stuff your partner does that you love, like making coffee every morning before you wake up or letting you sleep in on a Saturday morning—make the effort to let them know how much it means to you. “Tell them how much you love watching them interact with your kids. Or if you can tell that they’re feeling off or upset about something, tell them how much you appreciate all of the little things that they do,” says Dr. Smerling. Because everybody likes to feel appreciated, right?
2. “What can I do for you?”
“Too often couples become very routinized, and sometimes you can become like two ships passing in the night rather than a partnership,” says Dr. Smerling. For example, you may be so used to your partner making dinner every night or running your kid’s bath that it never occurs to you to ask if they want to swap roles. Or maybe your spouse is struggling with a work problem that simply isn’t your area of expertise, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can do to help (like give them a stress-relieving massage or take their mind off work with a Netflix binge). Asking your spouse what they need from you in that moment is a way of acknowledging both the partnership and the individual appreciation, says Dr. Smerling.
3. “Thank you.”
This one is simple yet powerful. But don’t take it from us—per a paper published in the journal Personal Relationships, gratitude is key to a healthy and successful marriage. For the study, researchers asked 468 married people questions about their financial well-being, demand/withdraw communication (“when one partner tends to demand, nag or criticize, while the other responds by withdrawing or avoiding the confrontation”) and expressions of spousal gratitude. What they found was that expressions of gratitude were the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality. In fact, researchers argue that the simple act of saying “thank you” to your partner regularly can be powerful enough to protect a couple’s divorce proneness. “Noticing and acknowledging the things that are often considered routine are important, and so is making a conscious effort to appreciate what we take for granted,” says Dr. Smerling.