[The following post describes the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House: 1) building love maps, 2) sharing fondness and admiration, and 3) turning toward, which are all about nurturing friendship in a relationship.]

A common myth is that if I’m married to the right person it shouldn’t take work and effort. That’s similar to believing that if I’m meant to stay in good physical shape, I shouldn’t have to exercise. It simply isn’t true and, in fact, can lead to unrealistic expectations about relationships.

Working at cultivating and nourishing friendship is at the heart of healthy marriages. The masters of marriage create intentional space to learn about each other, respond to each other’s needs, and share what they appreciate about their partner. They understand that anything of value takes commitment and investment, whether it be a career, child rearing, maintaining physical health, or any other worthy endeavor. They treat their marriage in the same way- not taking the relationship for granted but, rather, carving out the psychological space and time to really invest in their partner’s life.

Fortunately, we know how to nurture the friendship in a marriage and even help couples re-establish a solid friendship that has eroded. A common mantra in Gottman Method Couples Therapy is: Small Things Often. It’s not the big vacations or expensive anniversary gifts that make a marriage (though those acts can further enhance a relationship), it’s the hundreds of little interactions that a couple has on a daily basis that sets the trajectory for their relationship over time, whether in a positive or negative direction.

For example, couples who maintain their progress after marriage therapy have regular stress reducing conversations. In this conversation, 1) one person shares about the day, 2) the listener doesn’t problem-solve or interrupt, but simply listens and validates the speaker, 3) they then switch roles and the listener then shares about the day. This deceptively simple ritual of connection, that might take 20 minutes a few times a week, can shift the trajectory of a relationship over time. It’s the little interactions that matter most.

Here are some recommendations to enhance your friendship:

1) Build love maps through open-ended questions.

What’s your partner’s current favorite food? Color? What’s your partner’s current life goals and dreams? What was the most stressful or positive experience in your partner’s day today? There is power in open-ended questions and attentive listening. A popular New York Times article illustrates this power.

2) Share your fondness and appreciation.

What do you appreciate about your partner? What did they do today that made you feel a little more connected? What activities do they do on a daily basis that might get overlooked because they are so routine? Fostering a relationship grounded in the expression of appreciation is vital and is often as simple as shifting our focus from what our partner is doing wrong, to what they are doing right.

3) Turn toward your partner and recognize when your partner turns toward you.

We have many opportunities during our day to reach out to our partner, whether through a kiss in the morning or a text during the day just to touch base or express appreciation. The masters of marriage recognize when their partner is making bids for connection, whether through small talk or a touch on the shoulder, and respond by recognizing and accepting the bid. Even casual conversation between couples, such as, “What do you think about the weather?” Is usually not about the weather, but an attempt to connect through small talk and an opportunity to enhance the relationship.

Here are resources we recommend to strengthen your friendship:

Gottman Institute Relationship Guides

Love Map & Open-Ended Question Card Decks

36 Questions that Lead to Love