Discovering how to be happy in a relationship is not a process many people expect to go through when they first get together with a partner. But if you've hit a rocky patch and are looking to recover what you had, it's important to know there is a way forward.
There are so many benefits to be had coming out the other side as well, including the chance for deeper intimacy and a better understanding of each other. Going through a difficult period together and coming out stronger won't only help you get on in day-to-day life but in the years to come.
But actively working on a relationship when things get difficult isn't something that many people naturally want to do, counselor and life coach Anna Williamson points out. "It’s really important to recognize that the relationship will never sustain that level of intimacy and excitement unless hard work is put in," she says. "Relationships tend to come into problems a few years down the line because we’ve stopped prioritizing our partner. This means we’ve stopped checking in with them, stopped checking to see what makes them feel loved, what makes them feel valued and respected."
Whether you're looking to develop new connections after being single for a while or rediscover happiness in your long-term partnership, it's completely possible to learn how to be happy in a relationship. Here, Williamson, along with other life coaches and psychologists reveal their top tips for making it happen. From learning how to be more confident in asking for what you want to the unfortunate signs of a toxic relationship, this is what they want you to know.
How to be happy in a relationship
1. Think about what you need
Firstly, to find happiness with someone else, you have to think of yourself. "It's the old adage that change has to come from you but this means you have some leverage to change the relationship for both of you by simply changing your own thinking and behaviors," says Nova Cobban, psychotherapist and life coach.
Spend some time asking yourself what you think would benefit your relationship, she suggests. "Do you need to have more shared experiences, create more meaningful moments, or open up to each other more? Whatever you see is needed, create an opportunity for that."
But it's not just about actions, feelings matter here too. "If you want to feel more joy in your relationship, create joy for your partner. And in turn, their joy will help you feel it more too."
2. Communicate with your partner
Step two really is about opening up the conversation. Not a lot can happen to change your relationship if you don't talk about what's bothering you. "If something upsets you, vocalize it," says Michelle Elman, life coach and boundaries expert. "When you let things build up, you also allow resentment to flourish and that creates deeper cracks within the relationship."
However, longer-term and consistent communication is also essential. "We often lose sight of really listening to our partner, especially after a few years. Never underestimate the importance of robust, good communication. In fact, it's the foundation of any relationship as it helps us to forge and promote trust, honesty, transparency, and vulnerability," says Williamson, who also created coaching platform The Relationship Place.
To open up the lines of communication, the counselor suggests carving some time out of your day to properly communicate with your partner. "Leave your mobile phones to one side," she says. "Maybe ditch them and go for a walk tech-free. Talk to each other about any work issues, how your partner's work-life balance is going, or anything else that you or they want to bring up."
3. Share your values
During this time alone together, you can work on another important way to learn how to be happy in a relationship: sharing your values. Take the time to really drill down and explore each other's values during this time, suggests Williamson.
What's important to them? What is their life rule book? How do they live their lives? According to what rules? Equally, what's important to you?
If this is a new partnership, establishing values is essential to making things work through the years. "A relationship where values align more closely is more likely to be successful in the long term. See where your values match and if they don't, then think about how you can compromise on those values or whether you need to establish dealbreakers in the relationship," she says.
4. Create shared goals
From these shared values, it's then easier to envision what's happening in the future and start creating the relationship you want to have.
"Think about where you both are heading," suggests Williamson. "Is there a five-year and ten-year plan? Check in with each other on how you're both feeling about life and plan where you are going as a couple. Doing so means you have something to work towards, you're not just coasting along and existing together. You're actually building a life together."
5. Don't forget about the present
Whether you're in a long-term relationship that's struggling right now or a new relationship that's going through a difficult time, it's important to focus on the present while opening up the idea of the future.
"We all want our relationships to last but, ultimately, we do not know what the future holds or how the other partner will change," says Elman. So while it's important to create shared goals, it's also important to remember that you're living as a couple now and not the couple you hope to be in a few years.
Focusing on the smaller picture will help you spot the red flags and smaller problems before they turn into bigger ones that ultimately could end your relationship for good. "Staying focused in the moment actually gives you a better chance because you notice when issues arise," she says.
6. Do something new together
As much as talking is essential, it's also important to have fun together again. Giving yourselves a chance to find a new hobby or interest is a great way to do this.
"Research suggests that a couple who is growing, doing new things together, and who have shared interests will continue to sustain a healthy relationship," says Williamson. "Start a new hobby together, get into the other's hobby, try a new sport, or learn a different skill. For example, a new language. It's important to actively do something together as a couple so you can grow together."
7. Reassure each other in conflict
Conflict in a relationship, contrary to popular belief, doesn't always have to be negative. Provided neither of you becomes abusive in any way, having a chance to air your problems could be the way to shatter the discontent in your relationship.
Reassuring each other through conflict is one way to argue healthily, offers Elman. This reassurance can come in various forms, she explains. "It could be holding hands, communicating the goal that you would like to resolve the issue, or telling each other 'I love you'. Having these connecting moments helps to prevent arguments from escalating."
This reassurance will look different for everyone, so bear that in mind and if you feel yourself getting worked up, figure out what you each need to improve the current conflict. "Some people need more reassurance throughout the argument, some need it after. Some people need space to think and pause, whereas others need to have the conversation now in order for anxiety not to build. Knowing each other's needs helps create greater resolution when there is a rupture, to ensure you know how to repair."
8. Reflect during conflict
Similarly, during an argument, Cobban suggests couples employ a technique to communicate known as reflecting. The premise is simple, she says. "People want to be heard and they want to know what they've said matters and is important to their partner. So, when someone says 'I'm so angry that I've had to miss my [tennis game] to [come and pick you up]', you can reflect back their feelings without judgement. You would say, 'You've missed your [tennis game], I know that's important to you and I understand why you feel angry'."
Just letting your partner know that you've heard and understood them, without immediately jumping in with a defence, makes it much more likely that you'll be heard and understood in return. It works, the therapist says, because "when someone feels heard, their defence mechanisms relax and they become more ready to listen."
9. Create boundaries
No matter the duration or type of partnership you're in, it's essential to have boundaries and standards if you're looking to learn how to be happy in a relationship. Boundaries are must-haves, similar to deal breakers. They are the lines that we draw and the things we expect from a partner - like respect, being spoken to in a cordial way, and fidelity. If they are crossed, it's one of the sure signs your relationship is over. Standards are 'nice to haves' and compromisable for many people. They are expectations like timekeeping and personal hygiene to a certain degree.
"Whatever those boundaries are, it's important to communicate them and make sure your partner is on board," says Williamson. "You should draw your own set of standards and boundaries, but remember that boundaries are non-negotiable."
10. Avoid codependency
Codependency is so easily established, especially in the loved-up and lust-fuelled early days of a relationship, but it could be one of the reasons why you're struggling to be happy in a relationship. "When you are not fully sure of your own wants and needs, or your own preferences or desires, it's easy to let someone else fill that gap with their own," explains Cobban. "That's when being in a relationship can feel like you've compromised your own identity or that your own needs aren't addressed and resentment can start to set in. It's not your partner's fault necessarily. They just filled the space you hadn't claimed for yourself."
To learn how to stop being codependent, start with answering your own needs first. Then from that place of wholeness as an individual, you can find that a relationship elevates you instead of taking from you, she suggests.
11. Allow each other to change
"Allow the other person to change," says Elman. This could be a partner choosing to become more independent or growing in terms of their life goals, ambitions, or wants for their own life. It can be difficult to do, especially if the other doesn't feel like they're growing in the same direction, but it's essential for the relationship.
"We can cause more problems by wanting someone to be who they used to be," she says. "People change and we need to accept the current version of them." Otherwise, it may be time to look at separation.
12. Take a look at your sex life
This is the last tip on the list because it's entirely possible to learn how to revive romance in a relationship without sex and, essentially, how to be happy in a relationship without sex. "If sex is waning a little bit, there are other ways to stay connected," agrees Williamson. "The cuddles, kisses, and the verbal appreciation are what often goes by the wayside [and causes a problem]."
What's important here though, the experts agree, is sexual compatibility. This means having the same or similar sex drive to your partner. If one of you feels neglected in this way while the other feels like they are constantly being asked for sex, it's a recipe for unhappiness.
If this is the case, open up the communication and talk about what you'd both like from your sex life. Consider ways to spice things up in the bedroom or take the time to speak to a therapist, who may be able to help the two of you get on the same page.
What does it mean to be happy in a relationship?
Happiness in a relationship looks different to different people. One person's idea of domestic bliss will be very different from another's based on many of the factors above, such as lifestyles, life goals, and preferred methods of communication. But if you can say you experience some or all of the personal benefits of being in a relationship, then that goes someway to suggest that you're content in your partnership and it's the right one for you.
Here are three of the main ones to look out for:
- You can grow as an individual: "Being in a relationship offers you the opportunity to get to know yourself better. When you see yourself in response to someone else, especially within a romantic relationship, it can help you grow as a person. You start to see how you respond to your own emotions, you get to know your boundaries, your wants and desires, your needs, and your communication style," says psychotherapist Cobban.
- You feel motivated: "When it’s just you, it might be easier to head in a single direction but doing it with someone else can often elevate the sense of meaning that you get from it. When it’s both of you heading in the same direction together, you have someone to share the challenges with, celebrate the highs with, talk about the emotions that come up, and be more motivated to achieve your shared goals," she says.
- You can be more confident in yourself: "Having someone love you and share your life can be a big boost to your self-esteem, to see yourself through the eyes of someone who cares for you, sees the best in you, and champions you can change your entire self-image and allow you to feel more positive about who you are and your value and worth." If this isn't the case, you may need to learn how to be confident again.
Why is it so hard to be happy in a relationship?
You may be finding it hard to be happy in a relationship for several reasons, the experts say. Mainly though, Williamson says, "Many relationships find that after six months the relationship dynamic starts to shift. That is completely normal and is to be expected. After the honeymoon phase is over, we start to get feelings for each other and emotions start coming into play, so it's difficult to have the same level of desire when we have a certain level of emotional connection."
After a few years, the desire tends to be reduced in comparison to what it was at the beginning of the relationship. But the key issue here, the life coach explains, is that "a lot of couples forget to direct effort into the relationship".
"Relationships take effort and hard work and it's important to prioritize your partner at all times," she says. "Becoming complacent, sitting on our laurels, and prioritizing things or other people means the relationship ends up faltering."
However, while every relationship has its ups and downs, it shouldn't be too difficult to be happy in your relationship. Romantic relationships are there to add positivity to our lives, not take it away, and even though society has conditioned us to believe that we need a long-term romantic partner for long-term happiness, millions (if not billions) of single people and plenty of research will tell you that's actually not the case. According to a study by Harvard Study of Adult Development at Harvard University that looked at participants over 85 years, it's positive relationships (and not necessarily romantic relationships) that are the key to dealing with loneliness and having a longer, happier life.
If you are finding it difficult to understand how to be happy in your relationship, consider why this could be and whether this partnership is truly right for you. It may be more fulfilling to learn how to be happy alone instead.
When to leave a relationship
- If the relationship has become abusive: "If a relationship has become in any way abusive, emotionally, physically, financially or verbally (or any combination of these), then it’s a sign that getting help and walking away is the best and safest option," says Cobban.
- When there is a lack of respect: "When there are boundaries being crossed or when you feel unsafe in any way, [it's time to get help]. You must always feel safe and respected according to your moral code," Williamson says, highlighting one of the most common signs your relationship is over.
- When you feel unhappy: "Our gut tells us what we really need to be doing so if something doesn't feel right, listen to it and leave," she adds. "Have a think about why you're unhappy and whether it's flexible. Can it change? What are the compromises to be made within the healthy boundaries that could see the relationship survive?"
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A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness as well. Everything from the best protein powder to dating apps, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.