Dr. Shannon Kolakowski is a psychologist in private practice in Seattle, helping people with depression, anxiety, and relationship issues. She is the author of When Depression Hurts Your Relationship: How to Regain Intimacy and Reconnect with Your Partner When You're Depressed and Single, Shy and Looking For Love: A Dating Guide for the Shy and Socially Anxious. Dr. Kolakowski writes a blog for the Huffington Post and has been interviewed for publications such as Redbook, Men's Health Magazine, Shape, eHarmony, and ParentMap.
Valentine's Day is almost upon us, and you're not alone if you sometimes feel unsure of the best way to celebrate with your loved one. So this year I thought I'd share some ways to spend the big day that will not only be fun for you both, but that will also actually help improve your relationship. Win-win, right?
One of the nicest parts of being in a relationship is having routines that you share together and love: Saturday mornings spent leisurely snuggled up together; going to your favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant; or watching your favorite TV shows together. But becoming too comfortable in your routines can put your relationship at risk of falling into complacency and even boredom, which isn't so great for your relationship. So for this Valentine's Day, do something new and adventurous together. Research has found that couples who experience new and exiting activities together have an increase in the quality of their relationship (Aron et al, 2000). Trying new things together brings back the feelings of excitement and the thrill that you felt when you first fell in love.
Use Valentine's Day as a marker for starting to incorporate novel experiences into your schedule. Each of you can brainstorm a list of new places you'd like to see or things you'd like to try together. Make a goal to try one new activity each month or weekend, depending on what your schedule allows. Keep your list someplace you can see it, like a whiteboard, and check off the activities as you go. Watch your relationship thrive.
One hallmark of committed, solid couples is an ability to show gratitude to one another (Gordon et al., 2012). When your partner feels appreciated, he or she will in turn be more likely to appreciate you and all you do for them. On Valentine's Day, incorporate gratitude with a gift that shows your high level of appreciation. Say it in your card, in your gift (love vouchers are a classic), or write down how you feel in a poem or love letter. Don't let Valentine's Day be the only day you show your appreciation, though. Make it your goal to show gratitude for your partner on a regular basis, as even small gestures of gratitude can make a big difference in long term relationship success (Algoe, Gable, and Maisel, 2010).
Most people view Valentine's Day as a time to connect sexually, which is great news for your relationship. That's because having a strong, healthy sex life is a vital part of marital satisfaction (Yeh et al. 2006; McCarthy and McCarthy, 2003). Use Valentines Day as a time to reinvest in your sexual energy with your partner. It might be as simple as carving out the time (and privacy) for intimacy, or creating the right setting for you two to be together (piles of laundry and stacks of work papers are less sexy than a clean room with candlelight). Turn up the heat by taking your time with massaging one another, touching and kissing each other in new places, or taking a steamy shower or bath together. You can add novelty to your sex life by trying new positions, erotic toys, or new sexy outfits. In order to keep your relationship thriving all year long, think about ways you can make sex and intimacy an important part of your regular life.
Research indicates that when people receive a gift that is unexpected or has an element of mystery surrounding it, they tend to feel more positively about the experience, and the happy feelings last longer, when compared to something they expect (Wilson et al., 2005). So for Valentines Day, add an element of the unexpected to your gift.
To make it really special, incorporate your partner's unique tastes and preferences into the surprise. Consider your partner's preferences: What does she love to do? What has he talked about wanting to do together? What have been successful dates or experiences for the two of you in the past? Incorporating elements that show you've thought about what your partner will enjoy will make your surprise all the more meaningful.
If you decide to go with something more routine, make sure it brings up sentimental, happy memories from the past. Integrating elements of nostalgic, positive memories into your day can help you feel more connected to your partner. Remembering cherished times helps people feel more positive about the future (Cheung et al, 2013). To bring out feelings of nostalgia, go back to the site of your first date, dance to your wedding song, recreate your signature dish that you shared on your honeymoon, or plan a trip back to your favorite vacation spot together.
Research also shows that feelings of nostalgia help people feel more connected with the meaning of life (Routledge, 2013). Feeling connected to one another, more positive, and more in touch with the things that matter to you in life are all really helpful in creating a special Valentine's Day together.
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