Ask a Doctor is PEOPLE’s series getting you the answers to the medical, health and personal questions that you always wanted to know but weren’t sure who to ask.
Whether you’ve been together for so long that you each have your own groove in the couch or you just coupled up during quarantine, your relationship requires a certain amount of maintenance to make sure both parties are happy and fulfilled (just ask these celebs!). PEOPLE asked therapists specializing in relationships what couples can do— starting right now, today!— to improve the health of their relationship and feel more affectionate pretty much instantly. Their advice is easier than you think!
1. Make time for fun
“The couple that plays together stays together,” says Karen Waldman, PhD, a Houston-based therapist specializing in relationships. “When you use humor, do fun things together, and laugh during the day, that’s going to make you feel closer.” There are tons of ways you can do this: text each other silly GIFs, watch a standup special on the couch, or just crack up while channeling your inner child over a game of Twister.
2. Hug it out
Physical touch can have a big effect on happiness. That’s especially true if you’ve been together a long time and don’t find yourself reaching—literally!— for your partner as often as you did in your early days, as that contact makes us feel connected to each other and desired. If you’re a parent who feels overwhelmed at the idea of more touch because your kids are on you 24/7, it’s okay to communicate that and ask for space, but make sure you let your partner know when you’re ready to touch again.
To that end, Dr. Waldman points out that increasing physical contact can make couples feel pressured to have sex, which they may not have time for or be in the mood for. “So take sex off the table. Hug and kiss like you did when you were dating,” says Dr. Waldman. “Human touch is so important in relationships.”
3. Create a team mentality
It’s easier to problem solve when, from the outset, you plan to arrive at a solution that is a win for everybody on your “team.” What is an option you both could live with? “Approaching things from the angle of ‘we’re in this together, and we’ll get out of it together,’ creates camaraderie,” says Jane Greer, PhD, a New York-based marriage and family therapist and author of What About Me: Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship.
4. Remind yourself about #relationshipgoals
If your partner walks in the door and immediately does something you find annoying, pause and reframe your thoughts. “Think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. My goal is to have a fun night— if I jump on them, will that get me closer to my goal or further away?’” says Dr. Waldman. “If you remember that you want to have a happy marriage, you can then focus on what you’re doing to make sure that happens. There are ways to handle [whatever your partner did] besides feeling irritable.”
5. Give them the benefit of the doubt
If you’re having a misunderstanding, don’t assume your partner refuses to understand your POV. “It’s self-protective to assume the worst, but when we give them the benefit of the doubt and communicate with them about their perspective, that helps clear up any issues quickly,” says Dr. Waldman
6. Channel date night in easy ways
This is one of Dr. Greer’s favorite tricks. “Extract what I call the ‘essence of desire,’” she says. Even if you can’t currently go out on an actual date, try and remember what made those early “dating” days feel magical. Saying things like “I just want to tell you: I love you” or “I find you adorable” harkens back to those times and makes the other person feel loved and cared about.
7. Talk candidly about the future
“People feel very vulnerable when they share their hopes and dreams,” says Dr. Waldman. Whether they’re career aspirations or personal goals, letting your partner in on them can be powerful, which “can help you feel closer.” Giving each other the opportunity to support personal development can create mutual appreciation, while bottling up your ambitions might breed resentment if one person begins to change unexpectedly. [???] Dr. Waldman points out that “it’s really healthy to grow and change over time,” especially if you can do it together.
8. Practice empathetic listening
It’s so easy to spend your catch-up time one-upping the other about who had the harder day. But Dr. Greer suggests that before you add your stress to that day’s venting session, to offer your partner some empathy. “Saying ‘Wow, you did a lot today. You must be exhausted,’ is a powerful acknowledgement that keeps people from feeling unsupported. Then you can say ‘I had such a crazy day, too!’” she says.
9. Mix things up
Novelty goes a long way in keeping a relationship healthy and thriving. “Establishing new rituals keeps you from getting in a rut,” says Dr. Waldman. Try taking an online class together, going on a hike you haven’t tried before, or just spending some quality time in a park together. “When you introduce something new, you get exciting, feel-good chemicals.”
If you don’t have childcare to get out and do an activity together, give yourself permission to give the kids some extra screen time so you can enjoy a new-to-you movie on your own (even if you’re watching on a shared tablet with shared headphones while the kids take the big TV). “This is no time to worry about overdoing electronics,” says Waldman. “If the couple is OK, the kids are gonna be OK.”
10. Establish a do-over
Snapped at your partner over something they did (or didn’t) do? Call for a do-over. You can tell them, “I don’t like myself when I’m not compassionate,” says Dr. Waldman, and take a beat to think about how you want to act, rather than how you reacted. Then, try again. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes! If you think it over and you’re still upset they didn’t hang their towel up again, just the act of taking some time to phrase your request in a more understanding, less aggravated way will help reduce hostility.
11. Forgo criticism in favor of being constructive
Before starting a serious conversation, prep a positive framework for your key points. “Avoid telling the person what you do not like. You always want to put it in terms of what you’d love,” says Dr. Greer. For example: “It would make me happy if cleared the dishes tonight” instead of “You never clear the table, it’s your turn!” This works, she says, because you aren’t thinking about their negatives; instead you’re “thinking about what you need and what you want, then putting it in a positive way.”
12. Make a “love” list
At the end of the day, tell your partner three things you love and appreciate about them. They can be really small— “you refilled my coffee” or “you filled up the gas tank”— but showing your gratitude for them will go a long way towards avoiding any resentment that might be building up. “When people feel resentful, they often really are just feeling unappreciated,” says Dr. Waldman. “An act of consideration and thoughtfulness, met with a sincere thank you, is one of the first positive, proactive things you can do for a relationship,” adds Dr. Greer.
13. Give little gifts
Don’t assume that all gifts require lots of thought and significant investment. Those can be nice for special occasions, but more consistent small gestures – like flowers (even ones picked from your yard!), a sweet sentiment on a Post-It note, a favorite sandwich— these things really keep couples close, says Dr. Waldman. These little trinkets serve as reminders of how well we know our partners, that we were thinking of them, and that we really do cherish them.
14. Hit the hold button
If a serious discussion topic is met with distraction or resistance, don’t seethe about it. Instead, pick a concrete time to circle back to the topic. “This is particularly important if one person wants to talk it through and the other wants to go to bed,” says Dr. Greer. “Say, ‘we’ll talk about it Saturday morning.’” The person who wants to talk it through gets a specific time frame, and the person who wants to go to sleep is held to their end of promising to hash it out eventually.”
15. Spend some time on yourself
It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on self-care can actually improve your relationship. “If we expect our partner to make us happy, we’re not taking responsibility for ourselves,” says Dr. Waldman. Do some things that “fill your cup” and make you feel joyful, and your mood will be less dependent on what your partner is–or isn’t—doing. (Ask them for help with this, too—if you have kids, have your partner to take them a few hours so you can really get the most out what little time you do have for yourself.) “I like to say ‘your partner can be the icing, but you have to be your own cake,’” says Dr. Waldman.
BONUS: Consult an expert
Find yourself fighting about a common topic – say, the chores, or your kids – a lot, particularly when it comes to different styles? Page Dr. Google. “Don’t make it a power struggle about whose way is better,” says Greer. If you’re having a specific disagreement, try and go to an authority— it’s best if you can look up that person together— to see what they say (in other words, if you get a book, you both should read the book!). Armed with impartial information, says Greer, “you can start to work through your differences.”