Love is complicated to say the least. The love we feel for our parents is different from the love we have for our friends or a pet. It comes in many many forms, and has even more varied definitions. Today is Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about romantic relationships.
Assuming your relationship has a component of love, there is ample research which suggests that the feeling of being loved by someone reduces stress, anxiety and even depressive symptoms.
“A lot of relationship stress is often attributed to insecurities,” Hiba Siddiqui, a New Delhi-based Psycho-oncologist, told Re:Set. “In order to understand relationships, one must recognize the importance of emotional intimacy. It’s about being honest, comfortable and even vulnerable with your partner, without the fear of being judged.”
She explained that when people are desired, it increases their dopamine levels, so one feels wanted, and it reduces stress. When we’re physically intimate with someone, then our body releases oxytocin, which makes us feel desired and these happy hormones make us feel more adjusted and happier, and that reduces anxiety.
“Sometimes people choose to not be in relationships and they are still happy.” Siddiqui said. “Happiness is not defined by the presence or absence of a relationship, but the connection between partners and the level of intimacy and trust. The inability to resolve a conflict adaptively, can often take a toll on one’s mental health.”
As everyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship knows, love doesn’t always help our mental health. So what can we do, in other words, to optimize our relationship so it positively impacts our mental health?
We asked Siddiqui and Himani Kulkarni, a New Delhi-based counseling psychologist, who have worked extensively with couples, about different strategies we can use so that rather than stressing us out, our relationships actually make us happy.
Define an ‘optimized relationship’
Kulkarni: You have to define what an optimized relationship looks like for you. Not everyone thinks of love or respect or commitment as non-negotiables in a relationship. They might be OK with getting respect and commitment but be OK with not receiving or giving overt affection, or they could want respect and affection but be fine with little commitment. Knowing these key relationship breakers yourself will help you understand what an optimal relationship looks like for you.
Additionally, people come into relationships with preconceived notions of what a relationship should look like depending on the culture they come from, or the content they’ve consumed. A lot of the time because of that, people take undue pressure on themselves and their partners. So you need to understand how you and your partner, and your current lives will affect how the relationship looks like.
Take out time to talk about each other
Siddiqui: Rather than just stating what you feel, you should listen to each other. There has to be a reciprocity in communication. It allows your partner and yourself to be heard. If not possible in person, it could be through virtual platforms. Have your meals together via video calls and be curious about their day and their feelings.
Additionally, when you check in your partner, it makes them feel cared for. Perhaps checking in and asking, “Are you OK?”, is often enough.
Look for emotional safety
Kulkarni: The relationship should be an environment where you feel safe — where you can be yourself and talk about whatever you want and don’t have to censor yourself. Even if there are conflicts, which will happen in every relationship, you have to be able to take actions which will make yourself and your partner feel seen.
If you’re the kind of person who just wants to be heard when they’re angry, for example, and your partner is the kind of person who suggests solutions, you have to be able to tell them that’s not how you want them to behave in that situation.
Appreciate the good times
Siddiqui: Take time to recreate special moments. You can visit places you used to when you first met or started dating or watch films you saw together early on. Talk about milestones which make the two of you happy, such as, overcoming a rough patch or first impressions of each other and shared experiences. This adds to meaning and value in your relationship.
If you’re in a long-term relationship, doing this makes you appreciate how far you’ve come, and if you’re in the nascent stages, it helps you realize how much you like being with the other person.
Be OK with disappointment
Kulkarni: You also have to know that being disappointed in a relationship is OK, and that doesn’t have to mean that it’s over. During those times, people tend to oscillate between thinking about everything the partner brings to their life and if they bring nothing at all.
The relationship has to have a space where disappointment doesn’t bring those extreme reactions. You should have your non-negotiables, which can be trust, respect or anything else, but be OK if sometimes the ancillary factors aren’t met. No one is going to be perfect all the time.
Little things go a long way
Siddiqui: Lastly, leave special notes for them, send mid-day text messages, order their favourite dessert; small efforts can be cherished and appreciated, making your partner feel desired. No relationship is perfect, it’s always a work-in-progress with mutual respect and love.