What do extremely happy couples know that you don't?
Chrisanna Northrup, creator and co-author of "The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship" (Harmony Books), says couples in blissful relationships interact in simple, powerful ways others can adopt.
Five years ago, Northrup realized the pressure of jobs and family was eclipsing her own marriage.
"We were working as teammates, we were in survival mode. It was OK, but I wanted more," Northrup says. "I wasn't sure if my expectations were realistic. I wanted to know what extremely happy romantic couples were doing."
When she couldn't find that information, she teamed with Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, and James Witte, director of the Center for Social Science Research at George Mason University, polling 70,000 respondents around the world to create "The Normal Bar." Their answers to roughly 1,300 questions about love, romance, work, sex, finances, family and work form the foundation of the book.
The couples surveyed included a variety of ages, cultures, income levels and ethnicities. "People poured their hearts out," she says. "This was their opportunity."
The data gleaned from couples that identify themselves as extremely happy emphasize the importance of surprisingly minor adjustments in behavior.
Here are some of the habits of happy romantic couples, coupled with Northrup's commentary:
Hold hands more, at home and in public. "We know this is important," she says, "but how often do we do it?"
Sleep in the nude. "This creates closer intimacy and is easily implemented."
Take a vacation together, without kids. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported never taking a romantic vacation, reserving trips as family time. But it's important to find a way to enjoy time alone as a couple. "If you need child care, find another family you trust, and swap child care (duties) with them," Northrup suggests. "Even if it's just a night or two away, it revitalizes the relationship."
Kiss passionately. "People want more passion in their relationship. This is one way to create that. Talk to your partner about how you want to be kissed. Ask how he/she wants to be kissed. Even a long-term partner may tell you something surprisingly simple — such as he would like you to initiate."
Use terms of endearment. "Extremely happy couples both call each other pet names," Northrup says. "The couples not doing this, wished their partner would. This is endearing. You feel more loved. Have fun trying different pet names."
Look good for your partner. Long-term couples feel they don't need this, but data show otherwise, she says. "Make an effort, even if it's something small. And when you see your partner looking good, tell him or her. One male respondent said, 'My partner goes to lunch with her girlfriends and looks great, but when we go out, she doesn't do anything to herself.' Extremely happy couples want to look attractive for each other."
When you have a positive thought about your partner, share it. Give compliments. If he or she just said something smart or touching, say so.
Make a romantic gesture. Do something nice for your partner. Ask what he or she would find romantic. If you never ask, you may miss something simple that your partner finds powerfully romantic. And be willing to share what you would like. Missing the mark on this can go on for years, Northrup says, "then it's hard to (ask). You think, 'Too much time has passed, I can't tell him now.'"
Add variety. "Trying new things when making love adds extra flavor," she says. "Men and women both want more variety. It doesn't have to be outrageous. We found that men fantasize about their partner more than anything else." Ask your partner what he or she wants, Northrup says.
Enjoy each other's company. Capitalize on overlapping similarities, and focus on activities you both enjoy. If you find you don't have enough in common, it's time to try a few new things together.
The romantic payoff to speaking up
What's the No. 1 reason romantic relationships break up?
Recently divorced singles blame a lack of communication, says Chrisanna Northrup, co-author of "The Normal Bar."
What do the happiest couples find most fulfilling about their relationship? Great communication.
"We all need to be heard and understood," says Northrup. In many cases, she adds, people who are asked if they communicate well will say they do; when asked if their partner communicates well, they'll say no.
A technique developed by "The Normal Bar" authors, which they call High Five, helps couples break through faulty communication to establish a happier "normal."
1. Find a relaxed setting without distractions, such as dinner out without children. Agree to listen with full attention.
2. Each partner writes the top five things, not including spouse or children, he or she needs to be happy.
3. One partner shares his list in full. The other listens without speaking. Then switch roles. Each person must acknowledge and respect each other's individual passions. No interrupting, negotiating, arguing or denying.
4. Next, individually prioritize the top five things each of you needs from each other to be happy.
5. One partner goes first, this time telling just his No. 1 request.
6. Without responding to the request just expressed, the other describes her top request.
7. Both negotiate a deal, through trading and compromise, that allows each to meet the other's request. Don't criticize your partner's request.
8. Repeat the process for the remaining four requests on each list.
9. Listen with an open mind, beware of defensive reactions, and don't phrase a request as a complaint.
Northrup used High Five in her marriage, and found it life-changing. "You assume you know what your partner wants," she says, "but unless you talk about it specifically, you don't know. It's eye-opening."
Relationships by the numbers
78% of men surveyed who said they were mildly unhappy to happy said they sometimes hide from their partners.
86% of respondents reported being intrigued by the prospect of having kinky sex.
93% of men said they would risk their lives to save a partner — even in a bad relationship.
78% of gay men and women said their partners do a great job of communicating.
56% of people said they rarely or never kiss passionately.
— From "The Normal Bar," by Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz and James WitteCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun