Spontaneous getaways and supersize bouquets settle squabbles in rom-coms and other fantasy realms, but in the real world, romantic gestures aren't cure-alls for relationship problems. In fact, unromantic gestures can be the better salve.
Because couples are marrying later and living together before they do, continual improvement of the partnership is more important (and effective) than quick fixes, says Lisa Thomas, a licensed marriage therapist in Colorado.
Nobody is suggesting romance be killed off completely—far from it. It's just smart to add these unconventional strengtheners into the happy-couple mix.
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Consider a love contract
The Convention: Love should be spontaneous, not scripted.
The Counter: "If you negotiate difficult issues up front, your relationship will have a much stronger footing," says Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan-based marriage therapist. See: cohabitation agreements increasing 39 percent in the past five years, per the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and couples creating DIY versions, using sites like 4relationshipcontract.com. Even the prince and princess of Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Priscilla Chan, reportedly made one.
The Realistic Approach: When the two of you get serious, discuss how you each want the relationship to work, says Hokemeyer. "Tell him, 'I want us both to be happy, so let's talk.'" Hash out issues like sex, money, religion, and chores. Putting the plan into writing is key, but involving the law is optional.
Spend time apart
The Convention: The more minutes you spend together, the closer you'll be.
The Counter: Maintaining independence actually solidifies couples. Experts say that constantly learning new things about each other is vital to keeping your relationship as riveting as your Twitter feed. "You can't be glued at the hip to make that happen," says Thomas.
The Realistic Approach: Take regular solo time. Natalie Magaña, 25, and her husband, of Chicago, do their own thing two or three nights a week. "After being apart, I look forward to telling him about the shenanigans I had with my friends, and I can't wait to hear about his," she says.
The Convention: Penciling in intimacy is clinical.
The Counter: "It gives the message that, at that time, nothing is more important than being together," says Thomas. Plus, the more sex you have, the happier you'll be. Couples who gratify each other's sexual needs are 65 percent more likely to be satisfied in their pairing than those who don't, says a 2011 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.
The Realistic Approach: To up how often you undress each other, say "I miss having sex with you," says Thomas, who advises mandated sack time once a week. If you aren't in the mood at that hour, cuddle or kiss instead.
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Welcome the rough patch
The Convention: Focusing only on the positives helps couples through tough times.
The Counter: In fragile unions, having some don't-want-the-neighbors-to-hear disagreements can help the relationship survive, per a study from the University of Tennessee. Doing so helps probe—and repair—what's wrong. "You have to feel free to tell your partner something about them isn't fantastic," says Mary Vandergrift, 35, of Pittsburgh, who practices this with her husband.
The Realistic Approach: Fight clean, advises Thomas. Remember to focus on finding a solution, not KO'ing your sparring partner. If you do get nasty, apologize for morphing into a mean girl and explain why you got upset.