Time for Love
A good relationship with a spouse or partner is miraculous for our health. Numerous studies have shown a link between happiness, health, and coupledom. And yet, so often we squeeze each other in at the margins. The answer, says psychologist Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., author of The Science of Happily Ever After, is building a few moments of nonnegotiable connection into our routines. Then, when life gets messy, we can pare down to the bare essentials—and still get our love fix.
Repeat yourselves. If you've read any relationship advice at all, ever, you know that trying new things is good for a couple. But when your week is slammed, who's got time for the salsa dancing lessons experts always recommend? Instead, rely on another cornerstone of good relationships: routine. "Researchers have found that couples who regularly engage in meaningful rituals, whether that's cooking together every Friday or going for a walk on Sunday mornings, are more satisfied with their marriages," says Tashiro. "It automatically builds in a period to focus on each other." This doesn't have to be a long time, but it does have to be sacrosanct. That way, you know that even if every other night is complicated, Friday night you'll be getting the good stuff.
Ditch small talk. Don't settle for the timeworn one-two of "How was work?" and "Fine." Research by University of California, Santa Barbara, sociologist Shelly Gable, Ph.D., says couples with staying power often share a key tactic: They ask each other inquisitive, conversation-building questions. So when you walk in the door tonight, throw out a query that requires a multisentence answer. "Hey, what was the funniest thing that happened today?" can deepen a conversation with six more words. We've got time for that.
Share the choice bits. Isn't it strange how the most energized parts of your day seldom go to the people you love? "We often give away our best time— early morning and midday, when we're most alert and lively—to other activities and reserve for each other the worst time, late at night, when we're tired," says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a sociologist and coauthor of Snap Strategies for Couples. So reverse that. Rather than using prime Saturday morning hours to go to the gym, for instance, hang with your sweetie and do an evening workout instead. Or if you always grab coffee on the way to work, get up a little earlier so you can have it at home, in bed, with each other.
Set goals. "We usually have clear ideas about what we want to accomplish at work for the week," says Tashiro. "But very few people do that for relationships." Think concrete goals: being kinder, a good listener, or more appreciative. Keeping these in mind will help you focus your time together.
Buddy up. The dog has to get walked and the dishwasher must be loaded, but if you redefine one or two of those chores as couple time, you can build moments of connection into every day, suggests organizational expert Marilyn Paul, Ph.D., author of the bestselling It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys. In her own house, Paul has a rule: No one chops alone. That means anytime there are potatoes to be diced for dinner, a solo task becomes a reason to hang out.
Often, it seems as if our children can't possibly get enough of our attention—and there's nothing quite as guilt inducing (or inevitable) as feeling we've shortchanged them. But research shows that when it comes to well-being, how much time you spend with your kids isn't as important as what you do with it.
Think small. "Say 'quality time' and many people think of a special occasion: a trip to an amusement park, a day at the beach," says Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and author of Parenting in the Present Moment. "But it can be a five-minute morning check-in." Research shows that everyday moments—playing in fall leaves, reading together—contribute to family closeness more than splashy, once-in-a-while thrills. "What we do every day is more important than what we do sometimes," Naumburg says.
Take that car ride. Do you spend half your Saturdays driving kids here and there? Use your captivity for good. Naumburg points out that not looking at someone can make it easier to talk about big things. "Sometimes, eye contact can be intimidating," she says. Make a rule: The first 10 minutes in the car are tech-free chat time.
Never on Sunday. Have to work this weekend? If possible, do it on Saturday. Studies of weekend activities show that Sunday is still largely considered family time, and it's the day you're most likely to spend quality moments with your kids.
Skipping is better than stressing. If a crazy deadline means you're frantic at the thought of your kid's ballet recital, give yourself a pass this once. A recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that minutes with Mom aren't a bonus for kids if she's anxious and stressed. "In order for mothers to provide emotional stability, they need to be content themselves," says Amy Hsin, Ph.D., a sociologist at City University of New York. When life calms down again, you'll be ready and there—all there.
Your kid wants to be picked up from soccer practice, work just pinged you, and you were supposed to have coffee with your best friend. Guess who loses out? Yup. Research shows that when time is tight, women rain-check their leisure time. Yet the science is clear: Friendships act like a ballast, keeping us afloat when we're floundering. "We need that connection for our well-being," says Paul. Girlfriend getaways, even if they're no longer than an hour, make a difference.
Plan it. Therapists and social scientists agree that friendships thrive on consistency and structure—ritual again. So instead of struggling through a stream of texts or emails every time you want to see each other, make a standing date with that good friend. If you're the type to hit the farmers market every Sunday at 9 A.M., say you'll do it together every third weekend of the month. Or catch the same bus downtown every Tuesday and sit next to each other. Or if she's far away, FaceTime every Thursday night while you both cook. The key: Make getting together the default—with no planning needed.
Fewer interruptions, please. We think we can squeeze lunch with friends into a busy workday by just keeping an eye on our phones while we chat—but, experts say, that kind of distraction can hurt rather than help your friendships. "Close relationships are built on three things: fairness, kindness, and loyalty," says Tashiro. "When you're constantly disengaging from a conversation to check your email, there's often a perception of unfairness. Like, 'I'm here, but you're really not.' " Better to pick a different day or shorten the time you spend together, and do it when you can really focus on each other.
Send up a flare. You know that to be a real friend, you have to be there for your pals. But the opposite is also true, says William K. Rawlins, Ph.D., an Ohio University professor who's studied communication among friends for more than four decades: "You have to let them help you; otherwise the relationship won't feel balanced." Crunch time is a perfect opportunity to drop the cape and send out an SOS, Superwoman. Your friend will feel closer to you by lending a hand—and you'll get some priceless relief.
This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.