Psychology of Relationships

Relationships are important. Time is short. Get it right.

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  • Gary W. Lewandowski Jr.

The 4-Hour Relationship

5 ways to make time for novel or challenging experiences.

Have you ever felt like it’s hard to find the time in your life for even the most important things, such as your romantic partner? In fact, because your partner loves you, it may feel safer to neglect your relationship while you prioritize other things like your career.

Meet Marc Randolph. He’s the Co-Founder of Netflix and he’s super busy. But he still makes time for his relationship. As he described on the Tim Ferriss podcast, “… every Tuesday without fail, 5 p.m., I left the office and my wife and I did a date night.” He created this tradition because “I was not going to be one of those entrepreneurs who was on his sixth startup and his sixth wife.”


He didn’t have to set aside this time. I suspect his partner would understand that he had work to do. But that’s the point: He committed to just a bit of time each week for his relationship. Clearly, there isn’t anything special about Tuesday at 5 p.m.. Rather, the key lesson is that he intentionally makes time for his relationship because it’s a priority.


Speaking of Ferriss, he’s famous for writing books like The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef. Each looks at how efficient use of one’s time in key life contexts produces big benefits. Although he never wrote The 4-Hour Relationship, learning how to invest time in your relationship may be more important than your workweek or what you eat.


Make the Time

The premise is simple: There are 168 hours in a week and your relationship deserves at least 4 of them—non-negotiable, dedicated time, committed to you and your partner. You can spend those 4 hours on anything that benefits your relationship or builds your connection with your partner. You can even spend part of the time doing something for yourself that benefits your relationship (e.g., going to therapy).


You’re also free to split up your 4 hours in any way that works best for you and allows you to stick with it. Want to do 1 hour on four separate days? Great. If it’s easier to do one day where you log all 4 hours at once, that’s fantastic too. Remember, any way you divvy it up, 240 minutes isn’t a lot of time. Your actions reveal your priorities. We make time for what matters.


What Should We Do?

The easiest way to spend your 4 hours is with a date night. Sure, it’s obvious, but it’s also effective. The best dates will be a bit subjective and will vary based on the couple and their circumstances.

However, relationship science offers some general guidelines to set you up for success. That’s important because the time you have to spend with your partner alone, without worrying about work, kids, or household chores is limited. You’ll want to make the most of it.


1. N.I.C.E. Activities. There’s an endless number of possible activities, and picking the right one isn’t just about doing something fun. Research shows that the key is to do activities that are New, Interesting, Challenging, and Exciting (N.I.C.E.) because they promote greater relationship quality (i.e., more satisfaction, commitment, and love).1

In particular, N.I.C.E. activities help us avoid falling into a rut by encouraging us to grow and improve as people. They help us push our boundaries and get out of our comfort zone. Importantly, what counts as a N.I.C.E. activity for you may not for others. The key is doing something that allows you to build and expand your self-concept.


Thankfully researchers have identified specific activities that are most helpful for self-expansion.2 The Top 5 most self-expanding were found to be:

  1. Sex

  2. Showing affection (e.g., cuddling)

  3. Laughing together (e.g., watch something funny)

  4. Thinking about the future (e.g., planning a vacation together)

  5. Going out (e.g., going to dinner, a movie, etc. ).

If you’re looking for something even more specific, research on ballroom dancing shows that couples who go dancing together report happier relationships.3 When you do activities that facilitate personal growth, not only does your relationship well-being increase, but your sexual well-being does as well.4


2. Board Games and Art Classes. In one study, researchers asked married couples either to play games (e.g., Battleship, Boggle, Connect 4, Jenga, Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Sorry, UNO, and Yahtzee), or take an art class together.5 Good news: Couples in both groups experienced increased levels of oxytocin—the so-called “cuddle hormone.” Thus, it appears that either activity benefits your relationship because more oxytocin helps partners bond.


However, couples who took the art class had larger oxytocin increases and touched each other more, perhaps because the activity was newer and further outside their comfort zone. That increased novelty may also encourage partners to rely on each other for assurance and support.


3. Netflix and Spill. Feel like you’d rather stay in and do something a bit more low-key? Grab a spot on the couch and have a couples movie night. Over the course of a month, researchers asked some couples to watch romantic films (e.g., "The Notebook," or "When Harry Met Sally") and then discuss connections between the films' themes to their own relationship.6 Another group did an intense relationship workshop.

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Fast forward three years, and the movie watchers were about as likely to have stayed together as the others (without having had to do the hardcore workshop). It probably isn’t just taking in any film. Rather, watching a romantic story (e.g., "The Big Sick," "Marriage Story") gives couples a less threatening way to discuss relationship issues and helps them see their own relationship from a new perspective. It’s also nice to sit and watch something together that isn’t the news.


4. Bring Others Along. When we think of date nights, we often picture ourselves and our partner spending time alone. However, research shows that bringing another couple along has its benefits too.

When couples did a “getting to know you” activity, asking questions such as “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” with another couple, they felt more passionate love toward each other than they did when they answered the questions by themselves.7 Having another couple there helps to add to the discussion and provides additional opportunities for new and interesting topics, which can keep the conversation and your relationship more exciting. The more the merrier.


5. Talk It Out. There’s also a benefit to spending a good part of your 4-hour relationship week simply talking with your partner. When you do, it’s best to go beyond talking about your day-to-day routines. Instead, get into deeper, more personal, and more meaningful areas. The more couples self-disclose and share, the closer they get. As you get closer, it’s easier to self-disclose, and the cycle continues.


Not sure what to talk about? Dive in and have “the talk” where you discuss where this relationship is going and what your future together looks like. Talk about your strengths as a couple. It’s also good to plan out time to talk about the relationship so you can bring up anything that bothers you in a calm and neutral way. This way, you avoid impulsively lodging your complaints in a way that sparks a bigger fight. Being willing to address areas of friction also helps the relationship because you can keep small problems small.

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Take-Home

Too often we take our relationship for granted and allow it to coast on autopilot or get stuck in a rut. Feeling bored can threaten your relationship: Research shows that those who reported more boredom in their marriages reported less marital satisfaction 9 years later.8 But you don’t need to accept that staleness as your norm.


Putting in the time—even just 4 hours a week—helps keep it going strong. Just a little bit of effort goes a long way.


References

1 Aron, A., Lewandowski, G. W., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. N. (2013). The self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in close relationships. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships (pp. 90-115). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

2 Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L. C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(2), 237–258. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000148

3 Ricard, N., Beaudry, S., & Pelletier, L. (2012). Lovers with happy feet: The interdependence of relationship and activity factors for individuals dancing with a romantic partner. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(4), 939-963. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00835.x

4 Raposo, S., Rosen, N. O., & Muise, A. (2020). Self-expansion is associated with greater relationship and sexual well-being for couples coping with low sexual desire. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(2), 602–623. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519875217

5 Melton, K. K., Larson, M., & Boccia, M. L. (2019). Examining couple recreation and oxytocin via the ecology of family experiences framework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 771-782.

6 Rogge, R. D., Cobb, R. J., Lawrence, E., Johnson, M. D., & Bradbury, T. N. (2013). Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(6), 949-961.

7 Welker, K. M., Baker, L., Padilla, A., Holmes, H., Aron, A., & Slatcher, R. B. (2014). Effects of self‐disclosure and responsiveness between couples on passionate love within couples. Personal Relationships, 21(4), 692-708. doi:10.1111/pere.12058

8 Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., & Orbuch, T. (2009). Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later. Psychological Science, 20(5), 543-545. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02332.x


Read it on Psychology Today here.