At the beginning of most relationships, tokens of affection — love letters, playlists, spontaneous weekends away — help cement a couple’s sense of connection. But those random acts of infatuation often wane as a relationship matures. Even finding the right gift for birthdays and holidays can start to feel like a chore.
But a gift-giving mentality becomes even more important as a relationship evolves — and some of the very best presents can’t be wrapped. They’re the thoughts and gestures that come straight from the heart and can transform a good partnership into a truly great one. “One thing that stands out in the research is that the actions you perform are the most important,” says Gay Hendricks, PhD, coauthor with his wife, Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD, of Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. “A lifetime dedication to gift giving will take your relationship to the next level.”
So this time of year, when presents are on everyone’s mind, is the perfect opportunity to transform your relationship from good to great — or from great to greater — by giving your partner these six very important gifts.
Gift No.1: Learn Your Partner’s Love Language
Each of us wants to feel loved by our partner and wants our partner to feel loved by us. The challenge for many couples, according to Gary Chapman, PhD, author of The 5 Love Languages, is that the way one person shows love often isn’t the way the other person intuitively feels it.
One partner, for example, may experience physical affection as love, while the other experiences help with the household chores as the ultimate token of affection. They are, in essence, speaking different languages. “These miscommunications aren’t a matter of not having good intentions,” says Chapman. “They’re a matter of not touching the heart or emotions of the other person.”
Most of us grow up learning the emotional language of our parents, he explains. And we become confused and upset when our partner doesn’t understand us.
Chapman advises couples to identify what he calls their love languages and share them with each other to get past miscues. If you’re not sure which of the following five languages best describes you, take Chapman’s Love Language Quiz to figure out your type.
He also suggests identifying what you most often demand of your spouse. “The thing you have most often requested is likely the thing that would make you feel the most loved,” he notes.
These are Chapman’s five love languages:
- Words of Affirmation. Some people experience love most directly through warm words, whether they’re compliments or encouragements — “I appreciate that you found a babysitter for tonight” or “I know you can run that 10K!” Whether or not words of affirmation are your primary love language, research suggests that supportive comments help couples develop a sense of “we-ness” — a feeling that enhances satisfaction with one’s partnership.
- Quality Time. If this is your primary love language, you want your partner’s undivided attention. It’s important to you to have time together without distractions where you can nurture conversations and enjoy activities together. Quality time, according to Chapman, helps couples build reserves of positive memories, which are linked to increased marital stability and satisfaction.
- Receiving Gifts. Actual presents have their place on the spectrum of relationship gift giving, too. The key to speaking this love language, however, has nothing to do with the price tag — it’s all about making your partner feel understood. This could be a store-bought bracelet or a beautiful rock you pick up on a hike or a watercolor you paint. These kinds of gifts demonstrate that you’ve been paying attention, and that you really see who your partner is and what they love.
- Acts of Service. This love language emphasizes doing things you know your partner would like you to do, like making dinner, changing the cat’s litter, or paying the bills. These acts show your partner that you notice what’s going on and want to help.
- Physical Touch. Back rubs, holding hands, deep hugs, kisses, putting your arm around your partner — for some people, physical intimacy is the signal of love and affection. If your primary love language is physical touch, nothing will say “I love you” more than being held or touched.
Gift No.2: Pursue Passion
Passion often gets sidelined as a marriage becomes more established, but there are far-ranging benefits to bringing it back, says clinical psychologist David Schnarch, PhD, author of Intimacy and Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Marriage.
For starters, tapping into passion helps us discover more about who we are, which allows us to share more of ourselves with our partner. “When we are the object of our partner’s passion, it makes us feel desirable and desirous,” says Schnarch.
Passion also improves relationships by making people more tolerant of one another. “When we think our partner likes us, we are much more forgiving of grievances, and we’re also more tolerant of the inherent nicks and bruises of being in a relationship,” he adds.
Good sex has other benefits, too. Orgasm increases levels of oxytocin, a hormone that boosts feelings of connection and trust. Higher oxytocin levels have also been linked to increased feelings of generosity, reduced stress, and improved cardiovascular health. And sex increases self-esteem: A five-year study at the University of Texas found that one of the reasons people have sex is to boost feelings of positive self-regard.
If passion is in short supply in your life, Schnarch recommends these simple strategies:
Hugging to Relax. Most hugs last an average of four seconds, says Schnarch. Extending a hug to 10 minutes without the pressure that it should lead to sex can be a way to reconnect with your partner. “The focus of a 10-minute hug isn’t about holding your partner,” he explains. “It’s about putting your arms around your partner and calming yourself down. This calms the anxieties that separate people.”
Heads on Pillow. For many couples, it’s tough to transition from washing the dishes to rolling around in the sheets. That’s why Schnarch advises partners to lie in bed with their clothes on and face each other with enough distance so that they can clearly see each other’s face. “Hold hands, look at each other, and stay there for 10 minutes,” he advises. Most people feel passion start to kick in when they’re relaxed and lying down.
Feeling While Touching. Many couples develop the habit of touching each other without really feeling each other. “It’s very irritating to be touched by a partner when their touch feels mindless, like your partner is not invested and you are being taken for granted,” Schnarch says.
Bring passion back to touch by connecting emotionally as well as physically. You can do this by having each partner tune in to what touching feels like. He suggests taking turns deliberately touching your partner and noticing how it feels to touch and be touched. Do this experiment once when each person is tuned in to the experience and once when each person is tuned out. This helps both people understand the importance of really being in the moment, he says.
“When both people focus on the same spot at the same time on opposite sides of the skin, it creates an electric sensation that is the byproduct of emotional attention.”
Gift No.3: Allow Space for Solitude
When author Laura Munson and her husband got married, their ceremony included a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which read, in part: “A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.”
After almost two decades of marriage, Munson’s husband began to have doubts. But instead of begging him to stay, Munson took Rilke’s quote to heart and gave her husband the emotional space he needed to reflect and reconnect with himself.
During an especially difficult stretch where her husband took up residence in another part of the house, Munson focused on trusting the process, and her promise. “If a person needs to reconnect with who they are, the greatest gift a partner can give is the gift of space,” she says. “It’s a refueling time.”
Munson’s story, which she recounts in her memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, is a dramatic example of how powerful the gift of solitude can be. Giving your partner the gift of time not only helps repair relationships but can transform them from good to great.
Time apart — whether it’s a night out with friends, a quiet morning alone, or a solo weekend away — helps your partner get in touch with their needs, interests, and priorities. It allows them to more authentically share them with you. And finally, making room for mutual solitude also helps you stay grounded in your own well-being. This makes you a better partner, too.
Gift No.4: Don’t Skimp on Time Together
Some solitude is healthy, but as with all things, balance is key. Too much can weaken a relationship by creating separate spheres of interest, which can lead to couples having less and less in common over time. After all, we tend to fall — and stay — in love with the person we have the most fun with. That’s why relationship expert Willard F. Harley Jr., PhD, advises couples to do the things they enjoy the most together. “Couples who spend their most enjoyable time together tend to have great marriages,” he says.
Giving each other the gift of what Harley calls “recreational companionship” benefits both giver and receiver by combining two important human needs: to have fun and to have a companion. Harley recommends spending most, if not all, of your recreational time with your significant other.
Stumped about what to do together? To jump-start your imagination — and recreation — he developed the Recreational Enjoyment Inventory at www.marriagebuilders.com. It’s an extensive list of activities, including archery, astronomy, cribbage, croquet, gardening, and more. Each partner ranks each activity based on level of interest. When both people give an activity a high score, it’s one worth trying.
Gift No.5: Crack Down on Criticism
Nothing can sink a relationship faster than unrelenting negativity, says marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, author of the classic book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
In his research at the University of Washington’s Love Lab, Gottman found that successful relationships have a 5-to-1 ratio of positive interactions — compliments, loving glances, offers to help out — to negative gestures, such as criticism and nagging.
Whether you nag or simply turn your back when your partner is talking, these negative gestures erode your sense of togetherness. Researchers have even found that eye rolling after a spouse’s comment can be a strong predictor for divorce.
To bring your interaction ratio in line with Gottman’s recommendation, try to become more aware of how often you’re criticizing your partner. One way to do this is to create some kind of lighthearted stopgap when you notice critical commentary — put a coin in a jar or create a silly code word to use when catching yourself (or your partner) in the act.
Then try consciously focusing on each other’s strengths instead. Criticism will be naturally tamped down, and that will give each of you more opportunities to feel successful, appreciated, and loved.
Accentuating the positive in your relationship doesn’t mean you should ignore tough issues. It’s just that you need to do it in an environment that’s fortified with positive feelings and exchanges.
“There’s a big difference between asking for change and criticizing,” says psychologist Noelle Nelson, PhD. “If what you want is more participation with the kids or the house, that’s fine. But you need to start out from the perspective that you respect your partner, and his way of doing things is as valid as yours.”
Gift No.6: Actively Listen to Your Partner
During the courtship and honeymoon phase, it’s easy to hang on your lover’s every word. “Being listened to in childhood develops our sense of self and is how we know we are important, and the same is true for adults,” says psychologist Jan Hoistad, PhD, author of Romance Rehab: 10 Steps to Rescue Your Relationship.
Unfortunately, when couples are together for a long time, it’s common to become less attentive. But with a little practice, you can renew your capacity for rapt listening.
Hoistad suggests taking turns actively talking and listening at least four times a week for 20 to 30 minutes. Alternate which of you goes first and talk about something important to you, excluding well-traveled topics and hot-button issues as much as possible.
Be honest, but don’t just focus on what’s bringing you down. Hoistad recommends sharing personal successes and things you find exciting, rewarding, and worth celebrating. Then, when it’s your partner’s turn, actively listen to what they have to say without interrupting.
What’s most important, Hoistad says, is to listen with a readiness to give and take. “When we’re generous with others it creates such nice feelings,” she says. “And then the other person naturally starts giving back.” (Click here to discover how to transform your relationship by changing the way you listen.)
For excellent relationship insight and advice, check these out.
The Gottman Relationship quiz
Take a quiz on how well you know your partner. If the answer isn’t what you hoped, you can find books and exercises to help get you back on track. www.gottman.com/how-well-do-you-know-your-partner.
The Love Language quiz
Learn to identify your love language with this quiz developed by Gary Chapman, PhD, author of The 5 Love Languages. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to take it, too. www.5lovelanguages.com/quizzes
Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel
If you find it helpful to hear other couples work things out, this podcast lets you listen in on (and benefit from) real couples in session with renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel, MA, LMFT. (Identities are hidden, of course.)
The Leading Edge in Emotionally Focused Therapy
EFT has been a boon for many couples seeking to reconnect, and this podcast shares insights from two leading therapists in the field, James Hawkins, PhD, LPC, and Ryan Rana, PhD, LMFT, LPC, ICEEFT.