Whenever I encounter happy-looking couples, I like to ask them how they met. Like most people, I enjoy a good love story. I like watching their eyes light up as they recount the chase, the connection, the challenges and maybe even a breakup before they arrived to their destination of content coupledom. The conversations are usually entertaining and leave everyone in a good mood. Plus, I feel inspired, having learned a lesson about how to do love a little better.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we can’t help but be affected by the relationship dynamic of every pair we meet. We feel icky after spending time with the strained couple that bicker, put each other down or just loudly sigh in front of you when he hands her a Chardonnay instead of a sauvignon blanc. (“You’d think after all these years, he’d know what I drink!”) Worse, we take that tension into our own relationships and find ourselves arguing about something really dumb on the way to the car.
Not surprisingly, being around positive couples brings out the best in us. When you notice the way she snuggles up to his arm when they walk across the room, you become more affectionate with your sweetie. When they brag about each other in front of you (“She makes the best pie from the blueberries at the farmer’s market” or “You should talk to Kevin about where to get a bike helmet because he’s an amazing cyclist”), you automatically wonder what you should share about your date.
Some of us were lucky enough to grow up with great role models who showed us exactly how to make our partners feel valued and loved and inspire the same in return. But most of us were influenced by imperfect parents who couldn’t hand us a manual of relationship skills. So we have to learn them from other people. Whether we’re married, dating someone or single, we can all improve our own dating game by observing how solid couples interact with each other.
1) Watch for non-verbal cues.
We all notice the couple that holds hands across the table or gazes into each other’s eyes on a subway platform. But look for the little things, too: Does he protectively touch the small of her back as they walk into a restaurant? Does she automatically touch his shoulder when she returns from the restroom? Does he pick up an extra cup of water for her at the taco shop window? How do they stand together? Sit together?
2) Choose your couples company wisely.
You wouldn’t spend an entire evening with your negative friend who complains about how all online daters are jerks. (Well, maybe some of us have, but we wouldn’t do it again.) So don’t commit to a double date whom you know will make you cringe by the time the calamari arrives. Or if you can’t avoid exposure to gloomy pairs, such as relatives, try to limit your time with them or steer the conversation to positive topics, such as “Tell me more about what you loved about your vacation.”
3) Don’t be fooled by Facebook showoffs.
These braggarts are lurking every time you sign in. “OMG! My man just sent me flowers at the office,” or “Look at what an amazing birthday party my wife threw me,” they write in their posts. Or they take pictures of their food at fancy restaurants. But social media can’t capture all the everyday moments that are a more accurate reflection of their bond: How she stocks his favorite body wash or makes sure he takes his vitamins every morning. Or how he installs her air conditioner or drives hours in traffic several times a week to see her – and then spends 20 minutes looking for parking. These matter more than the carefully curated grand gestures.
4) Don’t compare. Get inspired.
There’s a fine line between observing the best of couple behavior and feeling disappointed that you don’t have that connection in your relationship. Educate yourself about what you admire and try to emulate their behavior. Praise him in public. Hold her hand on the street. Focus on the good things in your relationship and practice the art of reframing that happy couples are so good at. I’m thinking of a particular pair that loves to joke about his unromantic Valentine’s Day gifts. She delivers the punch line that makes everyone misty-eyed. “He gave me a new tire during our first year together. He wanted to make sure I’d be safe driving in the snow,” she says. “That’s how I knew he loved me.”
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.