I like to think of a committed relationship as a “journey from me to us.” Two unique people, with distinct thoughts, ambitions, and personalities now share their lives. But no matter how compatible you may be in the beginning, you will still face unexpected challenges along the way.
Just as in any other journey, in order to meet these challenges, it’s helpful to have a map and a plan. As a life-long pragmatist I’ve accumulated a number of tools to help me navigate the exhilarating terrain of love and relationships. Here are my top five. I hope you find them easy to understand and useful to improve your relationship.
1. Keep each other close
We all have limited amounts of emotional capital. It can be difficult to maintain intensely close relationships with more than a few people, so make sure one is your partner. If your busy lifestyle has you spending more time with friends and acquaintances than with the person you call your partner, reconsider your priorities. While absence might make the heart grow fonder, too much time apart can also result in emotional distance. When I find myself overly committed with social engagements and not home often enough, then I know I have to make a change. If I want to be emotionally close to my partner, I have to make sure we’re spending enough quality time together.
2. Find your own happiness
You can never make someone else feel happy, and that obligation can put a lot of pressure on a relationship. people in relationships need to find their own happiness without expecting their partners to make them happy. Develop your own interests, take good physical and emotional care of yourself. Make time for what pleases you and makes you feel content. Structure your life to include time for those things. If I make myself happy and my partner makes herself happy ̶ then we will have lots of happiness to share with each other.
3. Be forgiving
Sometimes, even the most loving of partners can say or do something petty or thoughtless. In an unhealthy relationship this could resort in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom of bad behavior. In this way, small slights can soon escalate out of control. If this happens often it can permanently damage a relationship. So when your partner says or does something hurtful, rather than retaliate, try to forgive. Take the high road. That way, if you say or do something your partner finds hurtful (and it is bound to happen) he or she will forgive you in kind.
4. Always keep the big picture in mind
As a relationship moves forward, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the big picture, especially during emotional strain and conflict. We tend to become petty and focus on things that don’t matter in the big scheme of things. Remember that your relationship is more like a movie than a snapshot. It is a series of images that together tell a story. And, as in a movie, following every low point there is often a high point. Keep this long-term perspective in mind and you’ll both enjoy your movie better and be able to navigate any troubled waters you encounter along the way.
5. Lighten up
There will be plenty of opportunities in a relationship to discuss difficult issues, but sometimes you just have to lighten up. One of the best ways for a couple to strengthen their connection to one another is to laugh and have fun together. Do you find yourself waiting to unload all of your grievances that have accumulated throughout your day on your loved one? Maybe your partner doesn’t want to hear only about the man who cut you off or the co-worker who won’t pull her weight. While there should always be space in a relationship to discuss the heavy stuff, make sure you find a balance. Make it a priority to have fun as well. Plan surprises, be playful, and don’t forget to laugh.
Alan Fox is The New York Times–bestselling author of PEOPLE TOOLS, a series of self-help books that give powerful advice on building happy and meaningful relationships. He has shared his wisdom with national audiences including the Steve Harvey Show and The Meredith Vieira Show.