You’ve done the therapy thing—individually and with your spouse—and hey, chances are you’ll probably do it again (just like your car or roof, your mental and emotional health requires maintenance!). But for those moments (or years) between sessions, a little fine-tuning in the relationship department can’t hurt, which is why we tapped three mental health professionals for their go-to “bag of tricks” when it comes to keeping a long-term relationship well-oiled and out of the danger zone. Here, their four favorite pieces of marriage advice—as well as one “tip” they seriously wish people would stop listening to.
4 Therapist-Approved “Hacks” That Are Marriage-Savers
1. Focus on connection, not just communication
“Communication is key, but connection is the real goal,” says Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., co-founders of Safe Conversations. “Communication without a true connection can actually be dangerous to your relationship, and practicing empathy and compassion for your partner, as well as for yourself, increases the odds of a positive outcome.” While communicating might mean making that joint Google Cal, connecting would be really sitting down and understanding why it’s important for you as a couple to do so.
2. Take turns talking and listening
Per Hunt and Hendrix, this is a simple but powerful tool that ensures each partner feels heard. “The next time you’re in a conversation, have one partner talk, while the other one listens, and take turns doing this. This creates an equal opportunity to share thoughts, feelings and emotions and helps make both partners become better active listeners,” guides Hunt. What’s great about this straightforward exercise is that it helps prevent reactive rebuttals that detract from engaging and getting to the heart of the matter.
3. Try replacing judgment with curiosity
“Replacing judgment with authentic curiosity is an active way to improve your connection and show you care. Listening without judgment provides your partner the space and grace to be themselves, rather than being afraid of what you may think or say,” says Hendrix. Meredith Resnick, LCSW and creator of the Shame Recovery Project also tells us to be curious of problems as they arise—instead of angry, ashamed or yeah, judgmental.
“As yourself: Why are these issues showing up now?” These types of metacognitive questions get you thinking about how you’re thinking about your relationship—maybe what worked before has become outdated. Your curiosity can let you explore something different and to see how you, your partner and the relationship respond.
4. Try to make your partner laugh once a day
“When relationships get too strained and stressed, couples often forget what having fun together looks like,” Hunt reminds us. “But the act of letting go of the concerns, even just for a moment, can alleviate tension and help you regain a connection.” What’s a great way to let go? Laughing. So try to make your partner smile or laugh at least once each day. It’s an exercise that not only has a great outcome—you’ll feel more connected and less stressed—but it helps you actively focus on your partner. When you’re trying to think up ways of making your wife of 23 years laugh, you’re thinking about her in a complex way that sparks both connection and joy.
The One Piece of Advice Couples Need to Kick to the Curb
Any advice that tries to change your partner
“Stop listening to anyone who tells you to try to improve your partner,” says Hendrix. “That means you see your partner as doing something wrong, and this perspective will amplify the behaviors in your partner that you want to change.” Instead, deliberately see your partner as wonderful—even if you absolutely can’t stand the way he leaves coffee rings on the granite counter. It might literally feel counterintuitive, but your relationship can really benefit from 180-ing your perspective. Per Hunt: “You will benefit as much from that perception as your partner does. Our brains are set up to replicate in ourselves the experience we create in our partner. You get what you give.” So if you stop trying to change your spouse, they’ll stop trying to change you. Touché.