A-game relationship advice. Are you ready?

So, here you are. You’ve met the one. Okay, you’re 92% sure they are the one. You definitely want to keep it going. Possibly forever. To take next steps. Cohabitate. Buy a sofa. Maybe get a set of dishes that actually match. It’s good stuff, this thing called love, and we want you two kids to make it. We really do.

Our relationship advice to you: Focus on the word partner. Think team, in this together, you guys against the world, etc. And then be a really good partner. They didn’t teach you this in school. And your ex certainly didn’t nail it. So, here it is, written with serious help from sexual health and relationship expert Martha Kempner, welcome to being a good partner 101.

Being a better partner.
First things first. Get real. Really, really real.

A while back, the person writing this post (hi!) was talking to a young woman who said something extremely interesting about her dating experience. What she said was essentially this: Most of the time, when someone tells you something about him or herself on a first date, you can pretty much count on the fact that they are the exact opposite.

For example, if a person insists that they are “so not the jealous type,” there’s a decent chance they’ll be reading your texts and scanning your Instagram feed before dinner is over.

Sounds like the griping of a jaded vet fresh from the dating battlefield, right? But it makes sense. The first time you meet someone, you’ve got the chance to present yourself as something better.

Maybe you’re still cleaning up the wreckage of another relationship where some of your less lovable traits were strewn on the front lawn for the neighborhood to see. Maybe you’re just trying to self-optimize. Maybe you’re reminding yourself to push your worst tendencies down deep inside where they can’t ruin everything. Fake it till you make it, right?

But no, that’s wrong. What’s right is that you are you. At least it’s who you are at the moment. Maybe you drink out of the milk carton, maybe you get weepy every time you hear “Wrecking Ball,” maybe you say “literally” when you mean “figuratively” or “85% of people would agree with me” when there is absolutely no real data to support those numbers!

Point is, you need to lead with you. The real you. Otherwise, you’re introducing people to a stranger, and one of those people might be someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Maybe longer! The sooner that person gets to know who you really are, the sooner they can fall in love with that version of you.

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From that point on, let honesty guide every step you take for the rest of your relationship. Take stock of it every single day. What did your partner do or say today? How, as their partner, did you respond? And vice versa? Was there something honest left unexpressed? And if there was, how can you help resolve it together in a positive way?

Relationship work is hard work, folks. Love is hard work! Nobody talks about that in rom-coms. But if you both put in the work, it pays off.

The following are some healthy relationship homework assignments. Don’t worry; there won’t be any tests. Love operates on the honor system. Just remember, honesty is not only the best policy, it’s the best dating advice, too.

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Use the element of surprise.
Remember these three things: Flowers don’t need to be roses. Flowers don’t need to be flowers. And everybody — everybody — likes getting flowers.

We’re using “flowers” here both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Because somewhere along the way, actual “flowers” became shorthand for “doing something thoughtful and surprising for the person you love.”

So let’s get back to that first part. Flowers don’t need to be roses. What’s that supposed to mean? Well, roses have the reputation of being the go-to surprise flower for significant others everywhere. But roses are expensive, and the truth is, all flowers are pretty. You know those cheap bouquets out in front of the bodega you pass every day on the way home? Those are some damn pretty flowers! Unsolicited gestures don’t need to break your bank. In fact, grand gestures can get a little obnoxious. So maybe go pick some daisies on the side of the road instead. Just make sure the side of the road isn’t the middle of someone’s garden.

Flowers don’t need to be flowers, either. Write a note. Snap a pic of an inside joke and text it (not that kind of pic). Bring them coffee and put it on their bedside table before their alarm goes off so the room smells like Stumptown when they open their eyes. Grab their dry cleaning on the way home.

The point is, be thinking of them. Keep them right there in your pocket all day long with you. Then act accordingly.

Finally, remember, everybody loves getting flowers. Just because we’re talking about flowers, don’t assume we’re only talking to men. We’re not. Everybody loves getting flowers. Everybody loves a delightful surprise. Everybody appreciates being appreciated.

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Don’t change.
Your partner fell in love with you for a reason. Don’t change. Well, maybe change some of the annoying stuff, but don’t lose track of what made you a total catch to begin with. Don’t drop everything you used to do and be in a misguided effort to prove your devotion. We all know someone who ghosted all their friends in favor of spending every minute with the new boo. Don’t do that. Don’t be that. Everybody hates that.

Too much couple time is a recipe for overexposure. You like donuts, right? But if you eat donuts for every meal... well, that’s probably oversimplifying things, but you see where we’re going.

Continue to be an independent human. Don’t skip yoga. Keep going to that glass-blowing class. Sit on the couch alone and read a book. Go out with your friends.

Just keep being the person your partner fell in love with.

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Photo by Julian Myles on Unsplash

Don’t change. But also, change.
It’s natural. People evolve. And you’re a people, right? So don’t allow your relationship to be an excuse for personal stagnation. Grow. Improve. Expand. Learn new stuff. Yeah, you fell in love when you were 24, but don’t let yourself stay 24 forever. The fun part about sharing a life is discovering what the ride has in store for each of you — as a team, but also individually.

Look at it this way: You know when you’re on a plane and they do the safety announcements? The cabin loses pressure, and the masks fall from the ceiling. Who do they tell you to help first? You help yourself first. You put your own mask on. Because if you don’t pay attention to your well-being first, you’re not any good to anybody.

Listen and hear. Hear and listen.
It’s not easy to tease the idea of hearing and listening apart, but when it comes to your partner, you need to do all of it. We’ve all heard some hacky standup comedian make fun of how “women just want you to listen.” Yeah. Women do want that. Don’t we all kind of want that? It might not always look the same, but all humans want to be understood, and sometimes that means using all your senses and a little intuition, too.

It’s easy to ignore some aspect of communication, and lots of times, it’s to our advantage to do so. But you’re smart, so don’t play dumb. We don’t always say what we mean, even if we should. But our non-verbal cues can speak loud and clear. The longer you’re with your partner, the more you’re apt to understand those cues, but if you’re ignoring, or misinterpreting, one another, that’s a great way for resentment to build up.

Simple example: Your partner wants you to do something. You say you can’t do it right now. Your partner hears something like a child not wanting to eat his peas. But what maybe you failed to communicate is that you tried to do that thing yesterday, and for whatever reason something stood in your way, and that something won’t be resolved until the end of the week. However, you decided that it would take too long to explain all that out loud. And where does that leave you?

Your partner is now upset for what seems like a very good reason. You are now upset because your partner is upset. And it could all be very easily reconciled by pausing for a moment, and listening. And hearing. Hearing and listening.

Communication in relationships. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Flattery will actually get you everywhere.
Did you know “flattery” is, technically speaking, a negative thing? It’s true. It means you’re sucking up to someone with the intention of manipulating that person. Go ahead, Google it!

Of course, most of us use flattery in a purely complimentary way, and when it comes to your partner, it’s super important. A compliment is a display of respect, and if you’re building a big ol’ house of intimacy, respect is one of the foundation materials.

In Dr. Gary Chapman’s book “The Five Love Languages,” offering “Words of Affirmation” is one of the five. So you’d think it would be a fairly easy thing to do, right? Just say nice stuff. Duh.

Unfortunately, research shows that traditional gender roles can sometimes interfere. To a boy who’s raised to compete rather than cooperate, extending a compliment to another person is like admitting that someone else has a strength. Which is like admitting you have a weakness. That is some cuckoo psychology, but it explains a lot about the incapability of some people to say something nice about anyone.

That’s no excuse, of course. Being bad at satisfying your partner’s needs doesn’t mean you give up trying to do it. It just means that even something as simple as demonstrating that another person is seen and appreciated can take a little work.

Along with honesty, work is the most common theme when it comes to relationship advice for couples. Just remember what your granddaddy (or some other old relative) used to say: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

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Keep it above the belt.
Avoid “right fighting.” Make no mistake; you will get in tiffs, scraps, disagreements and even some arguments — there is no way around it. Experts say that it’s not about preventing fights; it’s about working through them without doing lasting damage.

Research has shown that couples who are better at working through conflict actually stay together longer. So how do you fight effectively? For starters, don’t think of a fight as something you have to win, because whenever there’s a winner, there’s a loser. You don’t like feeling like a loser, right? Well, your partner doesn’t either.

Couples who work through their stuff successfully tend to unconsciously follow a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of positive comments to negative ones. As a result, even their conflicts can take on an air of playfulness. You’ve seen couples with this gift. They remain calm, make clear points, steer clear of gross generalizations (“you always…” or “you never…”), they never engage in spiteful character assaults and they make it a point to stick to the issue at hand without dredging up the past or peripheral BS they’ve been holding onto.

Eyes up here.
Gazing into your lover’s eyes may sound like a cheesy romantic trope, but science tells us there’s a whole lot of amazing brain stuff going on when you do it.

When two people lock eyes, the same zones in their brains fire up — areas referred to as the “social brain.” The two people literally synchronize, and when those two people are attracted to one another, their pleasure centers respond to that eye contact as well.

In fact, Tantric practices include something called “soul gazing” — literally gazing into the eyes of a lover as a means of deep, non-verbal communication by way of heightening intimacy. If it is a cheesy romantic trope, it’s an ancient one, and it’s based on something very real.

So do you know what color your partner’s eyes are? Not just the box they check on their driver’s license, but the real color. Is their hazel more green or brown? Any yellow flecks? A dark ring around their iris? Most of us don’t spend enough time looking into each other’s eyes to know any of that, but it’s important. Especially as time goes on and you spend more time together. Direct eye contact can be more intimate than a make-out session (though you shouldn’t give up on those either). It shows that they have your undivided attention, and it shows you care more about them than the ball game on the TV.

So, spend a little time each day holding hands and staring into your partner’s eyes. Just don’t be all weird about it.

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Partner and parent. The words look similar, but the roles definitely aren’t.
Your partner is not your mom. Or your dad. They’re not your maid or your personal assistant either. Make sure you’re pulling your own weight. You’re in this together, which means you should be sharing responsibilities. One person cooks, and the other does the dishes (or maybe you order out every night and take turns doing the dishes). If your partner does your laundry, you clean the bathroom.

And it’s not just about chores. Being grown-ups means you’ve both got to do some lifting when it comes to the emotional work. You’re gonna have your problems. Your hang-ups. Your F-ups — and yeah, you’re gonna need help and support from your partner. But one day, they’re gonna need it from you in return. If all of the emotional energy and caretaking starts flowing in only one direction, that’s not healthy, and it creates a fertile breeding ground for some nasty bitterness and resentment.

Be the president of their fan club.
Your partner has dreams. You want them to have dreams. And no matter how bananas those dreams might seem to other people, it is your job to support those dreams no matter what. Take those dreams, hoist them up on your shoulders and take a lap around the stadium! Because one of the best things about being in love is having someone who believes in you, without condition.

If they want to go back to school, help them study for it. If they’re up for a big promotion at work, cut them a little slack about the late nights in the office. Maybe even send a nice dinner delivery to their desk (it’s one of those “flowers” we talked about). If they’ve got a Shark Tank idea, give them a little extra time in the garage to work out the prototype. And — listen carefully — don’t get jealous of their success (we swear this is what takes down those Hollywood couples).

If you help them make a dream come true, your stock price as a partner will go through the roof and it will pay huge dividends when your own dreams need a cheering squad.

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Date night. Great night.
Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to let date nights slide. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just that it’s not easy to get motivated after a long day at work — especially when your main motivation to go out after work was to meet somebody.

Then at some point, you both realize that takeout beats a night out, and Netflix is cozier than concert tix. Before long, your FOMO morphs into JOMO, and here’s a spoiler alert for the future: The couch’s gravitational pull only increases when you move out of the city and start a family.

But remember, while a body at rest might remain at rest, a body in motion will remain in motion. So get your rears in gear. Go to a movie. See a show. Get locked in an escape room. Throw some axes.

You know what’s fun? Go to a freaking hat store and spend time just trying some on. Take pics. Laugh. No purchase necessary.

Relationships are built on shared experiences. And you need to work together to make those experiences happen. That’s right; there’s that word again — it’s work. But it’s also fun. And once again, if you do the work, no matter what the situation, it always pays off. It’s always worth it.

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