You agreed to stick it out through sickness and health and for richer or poorer, but marital vows don’t address the other big things that can untie your knot—boredom, feeling out of touch, or worse, platonic friendship instead of an in-love partnership. While honeymoon headiness will inevitably decline, that doesn’t mean your relationship has to take a nosedive as well. In fact, some of marriage’s best highlights—raising a family and developing a deeper, more profound connection—require years of togetherness.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to ensure that your relationship stays strong over time. We talked to experts who studied the habits of the nation’s happiest couples for their top bonding tips.
1. Shake up date night
Weekly dinners at your favorite neighborhood bistro won’t stoke your passion, says Stony Brook University social psychologist Arthur Aron, Ph.D. According to his research, novelty is the spice of life—and a key ingredient of a good marriage. You don’t have to give up your favorite couple-time activities, but do make an effort to inject some new plans into the mix: a hike, a cooking class, or even amusement park rides qualify. Just pick something you’ve never done before (or recently) together. Rewarding experiences flood your brain with dopamine, a mood-boosting chemical. “If your partner is present, that feeling becomes linked to him,” says Aron.
2. Ask this question every day
How was your day, hon? Yep, it sounds like a cliché, but if this nightly ritual has fallen off your radar after years of marriage, consider bringing it back. Sharing this little chat every night really can improve your relationship, says psychologist Angela Hicks, Ph.D., of Westminster University. She’s found that couples who discuss recent positive events with each other feel happier the next day, with increased feelings of intimacy and connection to their partners.
3. Laugh over inside jokes
Your teens may groan when you start in on the “good old days,” but insider moments only the two of you appreciate is healthy for your bond. In one Appalachian State University study, experts asked 52 couples to reminisce about fun times they had experienced both alone and together; those who liked to recall shared laughs were most satisfied with their relationships. “When people laugh at the same thing, they validate each other’s opinions,” says lead author Doris Bazzini, Ph.D. (Find out what a marriage does to your heart.) “And inside jokes or pet names—things others just don’t ‘get’—strengthen ties between couples.” Bonding over these moments builds a reservoir of joyful memories that can serve as a buffer against tough times.
4. Don’t freak out over a fight
If you’ve been under each other’s skin more than usual (and more than you’d like), it’s not necessarily time to panic or rush to a marriage counselor. Feeling irritated with one another is almost always a sign that you’re healthfully engaged, not drifting apart, according to a University of Michigan study. “It means you’ve become comfortable expressing yourself over time,” says study coauthor Kira Birditt, Ph.D. “Relationships that are close and positive can also be very irritating.” That said, if you or your spouse resorts to name-calling or frequent yelling, such behavior may be a sign of a problem worth addressing.