Apr 29

How to tend your relationship so the fire doesn’t go out

Valentine’s day may be long past, but it’s never too late to better understand the principles of a good romantic relationship and how to improve relationships in our own lives. To get an insider’s tips on love, I talked to Bailey Steele, a clinical psychology graduate student in Dr. Mark Whisman’s Wellbeing, Health and Relationship Functioning (WHARF) lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. Steele studies the psychology of intimate relationships, focusing on how individual differences ­– including attachment, attitudes towards women, and threat and reward systems – influence relationships.

I asked Steele how we can improve our bonds with our respective honeys, and she told me that it comes down to the 5 C’s of relationships: changeability, commitment, caring, cognition, and communication. These principles come both from Dr. Whisman’s research and from aspects of cognitive behavioral couple’s therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a well-known method for creating change in a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This type of therapy focuses on the interplay among partners’ cognitions, emotional responses and behavioral interactions. For couples, this therapy can aid in dealing with a wide variety of stressors originating within or outside their relationship.

 So what do these 5 C’s actually mean?


Commitment is the foundation of the four other C’s. Everyone knows a commitment-phobe who can be challenging to plan with, but what does true commitment really look like? In a relationship, commitment means choosing to evolve with your partner and be there throughout the ups and downs. Relationships require work and time, so to have a successful partnership, you have to make a conscious choice to commit to your partner and to working on the relationship.

Carving out dedicated time for your relationship is a fundamental part of commitment. At the beginning of a relationship this can feel easy because it’s exciting and you want to get to know as much about your new partner as possible. But as the relationship evolves, this mutual sharing declines, which can negatively impact our level of commitment to our partner by increasing feelings of separateness. One way to keep up the warm feelings and improve commitment is to engage in shared activities, which can increase feelings of intimacy and result in higher levels of commitment.


Next is changeability, or the ability to adapt. According to Steele, changeability means, “recognizing that not everything will work out in the way you expect, and to be flexible.” Changeability comes down toadaptability and flexibility; relationships are complex and require work and compromise to be successful. Relaxing rigid expectations can go a long way. For example, loosening up your standards for bathroom counter space if your partner has a lot of products can ease unnecessary tension. Accepting your partner’s differences and being amenable to outcomes different than your initial expectation can make for a happier relationship.


One crucial step towards improving your relationship in couples’ cognitive behavioral therapy is increasing caring behaviors. This means doing specific things that express interest, concern, affection, and respect for your partner. Caring behaviors such as unexpected notes, texts, calls, or back increase feelings of security in both partners because they show your partner that you notice things about them and that you’re thinking of them even when they’re not around. The high levels of passion at the beginning of a relationship that make you an attentive partner will naturally begin to fluctuate, so as a relationship develops and solidifies, it’s important to continue to do things to show your partner that you value them and want to nurture your relationship.


Another important element of successful relationships is cognition which, in this context, means thinking about your partner in a favorable way. The goal with cognition is to get in the habit of attributing positive situations to your partner, and negative situations to temporary external factors. This one can be tough to practice, so Steele suggested, “One strategy is to find alternative and more positive explanations.” For example, you could attribute your partner being short with you to a bad day at work rather than a problem between the two of you. Another strategy is to ask yourself what you would tell a friend or family member if they came to you with the same situation with their partner. “That helps to distance yourself from the problem, and makes you look at it more logically as well as to de-catastrophize,” Steele explained.

Additionally, it’s helpful to be aware of your own standards and expectations in a relationship, because the gap between your experience and your standards can create dissatisfaction. Using cognition to practice self-awareness about your expectations can help you to reframe situations in a more compassionate light.


Communication is about connecting and using your verbal, written and body language to fulfill your partner’s needs. Improving communication can lead to better understanding of and empathy for your partner. Specifically, it’s important to participate in self-disclosure – sharing personal things about yourself, both positive and negative – and equally important to elicit self-disclosure from your partner. To reinforce self-disclosure from a partner, it’s key to listen, empathize, and make your partner feel understood. Steele reiterated, “Sharing facilitates feelings of intimacy and closeness. It’s important to be able to turn to each other for support – to be willing to lean on your partner.”

Self-disclosure is especially important when conflicts arise. Steele shared a few steps for good communication even in times of relationship strife. First, define the problem in concrete terms, while trying to minimize negative statements. Break the problem down into small parts and address them one at a time. Second, brainstorm solutions together with each partner taking responsibility and coming up with things that they personally can do to improve the situation. Third, pick a solution together and decide on the length for a trial period to test how effective the solution was. Last, at the end of the trial period, reconvene and review the solution. Be sure to talk about which parts worked and which parts didn’t and revise as needed. Don’t forget to pay attention to each other’s needs in the moment. Steele further explained, “If during any part of this a partner becomes too upset, walk away and take a break. But make sure to pick a time to come back to the conversation – don’t let it just float off into the ether!”

To start incorporating the five C’s into a relationship, Steele recommends starting with caring behaviors, saying, “When couples come into therapy feeling really distressed, this is the first step to facilitate feelings of security.” Feeling secure with your partner allows you to take comfort in them and believe that the relationship will continue and be fulfilling.

Steele also affirmed that these strategies could be used in any type of relationship. For example, friends and family require commitment and time too, so shooting a text to check in is an easy caring behavior. If they don’t text back you could practice cognition to assume that it’s because they’re busy, and not because they don’t like you anymore.

For people who want to learn more about relationship psychology, Steele recommends reading The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; Fighting for Your Marriage; and Acceptance and Change in Couples Therapy.

So, take a moment to snuggle up to your sweetie, practice one of the techniques above, and thank the WHARF lab for making your April a little sweeter.

By Chrysta Andrade