Romance—it’s one of my favorite things. I must admit, I’m a romantic at heart, and fortunately, so is my husband. That works out pretty well for both of us because we both commit to keeping the romance alive in our marriage, but we don’t just do it for fun. Marriage, it turns out, is good for your health, and the happier, stronger, and more supportive the marriage, the better the health benefits. Divorce has been on the decline for more than a decade, including during the pandemic, and I think that’s great. People are recognizing how important it is, both for physical and mental health, to find and stick with a supportive, loving partner.
This month is Romance Awareness Month, so what better time to talk about romance in terms of how it can make you more vibrant? It’s certainly one of my secrets. Here’s how to make it one of yours.
Romance and Health
First off, motivation—as if you need any motivation to infuse your life with more hearts and flowers! There are multiple studies demonstrating that people in romantic relationships report subjectively being happier, and their brains reflect that, with reduced density of their gray matter in the part of the brain, the striatum, that physiologically changes in response to rewarding social behavior.
Those who are married, or in committed, marriage-like relationships, have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day, according to one study, suggesting that committed relationships offer some protection against stress, which would, in turn, reduce the risk of stress-related health issues and chronic diseases.
Another key to the health benefits of romance is oxytocin, which increases feelings of bonding and nurturing, and is released in response to human touch. Oxytocin reverses the stress response, making you feel good and also improving your measures of health, like your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Other hormones playing various positive roles: cortisol, although it is a stress hormone, rises with feelings of attraction and desire and can give your relationship energy; dopamine, which causes that euphoric feeling of being in love, can make you feel less anxious or depressed; and serotonin, which can fuel feelings of preoccupation with another person, can also make you feel happier, which may make you live healthier.
The fact is, we are social animals and we all feel safer and more secure when we have a life partner. There are also numerous societal benefits. Throw in the excitement of romance and a great sex life, and relationships become even more rewarding because they are so enjoyable. And speaking of sex, regular sex appears to reduce the risk of having a heart attack later in life, at least for women, and also helps improve immune health, lower blood pressure, improve mood, improve sleep, and strengthen the bond between couples, further lowering stress, for a positive heart-shaped feedback loop that simply makes life sweeter.
Building Positive Relationships
If you aren’t in a romantic relationship right now, don’t worry. All things happen in their own time, and it’s very important to nurture and foster your relationship with yourself. That’s the best way to be a good partner someday. If you are in a relationship but you wish it was more romantic, that’s fine, too. There is always room for improvement. Whether you are looking ahead to the future or working on what you already have in front of you, here are a few of my favorite (and well-practiced) strategies for building positive relationships:
- Work harder. Relationships take work. I’ve heard people say that a really good relationship shouldn’t be hard, but I don’t agree with that at all. If you want to be in a strong, supportive romantic relationship, you have to be willing to commit time and emotional energy to the other person, and learn together how to be mutually vulnerable and worthy of trust. To do that, ask yourself what you are genuinely available for, whether you are really willing to put the time and effort into a relationship, and how open you are to true intimacy. Yep, it’s scary. And yep, it’s worthwhile!
- Accept that compromise is a good thing. It’s not just about you. People too often focus on what they want in a relationship without thinking about what their partner, or potential partner, might want and need from them. Every great relationship requires empathy and some sacrifices, but the payoffs are real. Choosing to find middle ground with a partner isn’t “settling” or giving up part of yourself. It’s building something bigger than both of you.
- Know yourself. It’s not about finding your perfect match. It’s about being someone who is willing and able to be a perfect match for the person they love. That doesn’t mean changing who you are. It means being fully who you are, so the person who is right for you will recognize you. Dr. Jay Ferraro, who has been a relationship counselor for my husband and I since before we were married, says that you “can create a soul mate by becoming someone capable of loving the person you have chosen, and becoming the right partner for the person you have found.” That person doesn’t have to be perfect, and neither do you, but it’s about prioritizing the needs of your partner rather than whatever it is you think you want. Magically, this is the way to recognize and receive what it is you really wanted all along.
- Don’t blame. Take responsibility. It’s easy to point the finger at the person closest to you every time something goes wrong, but instead, take responsibility for your part in your own life. This requires some self-knowledge. Get to know who you are, rather than telling someone else who you think they should be. The only person you really have control over is yourself. Life comes with problems, but you can work them out together, rather than choosing to be at odds (and it is a choice).
- Don’t think you always have to be happy. Happiness isn’t meant to be a permanent state of being. It’s a temporary state. A really good relationship isn’t about being happy all the time. It’s about being fulfilled. You can be angry, sad, frustrated, irritated, and need your space, all within the space of a strong relationship. Love makes room for the entire emotional spectrum, and that’s okay. Just because your partner made you angry doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s what you do with those feelings that matters.
I will add to all of the above that there are exceptions. There is no reason to stay in an abusive relationship. I was in one for a long time (I tell this story in my book) and I know that sometimes it does have to be about you, for self-preservation. All the sacrifices should not come from one side. If you are being abused, please get help. (The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.)
Healthy Relationships Habits
Dr. Jay calls out seven things successful and happy couples generally do:
- They have high standards, both for whom they choose as a partner, and for themselves and their own behavior within the relationship.
- They put the relationship first, above all else. Their loyalty is to their partner, first and foremost.
- They have crystal-clear boundaries around their relationship, and they have discussed what those boundaries are and what it will mean to both of them to be in the relationship.
- They say “I love you” every day, and mean it.
- They have rituals of connection, like always having dinner together, going to bed at the same time, or kissing each other good-bye.
- They have regular sex and are comfortable talking about their sex life with each other.
- They have a common vision, common values, and common interests. They like to do things together, but they also do things apart sometimes, then come back together to share their experiences.
This is just a beginning of what it can mean to have a strong, healthy, long-term romantic relationship. I hope you will use this as inspiration this month to explore and deepen your own relationship. The best news is that the romance never has to die. There is no age limit on romance. It can always be rekindled, if you are both willing to re-light that fire.