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I always thought that a strong romance is built on, well, romance. With that in mind, my husband and I have worked hard to keep the flame alive over the years—champagne, candlelit dinners, love notes, you name it. But while all of these romantic gestures are important and certainly keep things interesting, we’ve been surprised to find that an ever-deepening friendship has been the real fuel to romantic passion.

About four years ago, my husband and I moved to Chicago from Seattle. He had been born and raised in Seattle, and I had gone to college in the city, so both of us were leaving hard-won, long-term friendships. I naturally worried about finding new friends in our new home. What I didn’t anticipate was what deep friendship we would find in each other.

Of course, we already loved spending time together, but we had established a particular routine back home that involved lots of other people and schedules. Now, suddenly, we had to build new routines. We got a walking tour book and explored a new neighborhood every weekend, picking out restaurants to try along the way. We got a subscription to a local theatre, and we went to a couple baseball games. We went apartment hunting and furniture shopping with minimal arguments. We ended every day with an episode of Boardwalk Empire. Pretty soon, I realized that my favorite Chicago friend was, in fact, my husband. And as our friendship strengthened, so did our entire relationship.

This is not to say that a romantic relationship should become a substitute for other friendships. And not all guy friends make great boyfriends. But your boyfriend (or fiancé, spouse, or partner) should be a great friend. Certified Gottman Therapist Zach Brittle reminds us that the work you put into your friendship with your partner is what can make your relationship go the distance. “Don’t take this work for granted,” Brittle warns. “It’s the foundation of intimacy.” The truth is, if you’re looking for romance, the best place to start is by building a strong friendship.

01. Find something that is just yours.

Think about it. Do you have Tuesday coffee with a girlfriend or weekly happy hour with work buddies? Why wouldn’t you do the same with your guy?

Brittle calls these moments “rituals” and defines them as “the regularly occurring activities and interactions that help stabilize a relationship.” He argues that rituals are opportunities to infuse your relationship with creativity. The process is simple. Find something simple you both love to do—or want to do more of—and do it together on a regular basis. 

It can really be anything. For example, we started watching Seattle football about a year after we moved away from the city. What started as an occasional thing “when we felt like it” became a weekly event. The bartenders learned our names and drink preferences. We got really good at pre-game shuffleboard. We planned around it. We’d stumbled upon something that was ours, and which gave us a weekly excuse to simply hang out together.

Perhaps you’re better people than we are. Maybe a weekly run or a regular workout class could be your thing. A friend of mine volunteers with her guy every week or two at different organizations around their city. They look online for something that sounds interesting and devote half a Saturday to it. 

It may take some trial and error, but whatever you land on, do it faithfully. A regular moment to reconnect over something that is just yours gives you something to look forward to, and prevents you from taking each other for granted.

02. The small things matter.

Few things make me happier than getting a funny video from a friend. I feel thrilled that they thought of me in the middle of their busy life. And I get to laugh at a funny video.

Time with your guy doesn’t have to be big and important. It can be a quick text of a funny conversation you had, or an impromptu happy hour after a hard day at work (or a normal, boring day at work). Brittle suggests simply adding some meaning to the mundane morning routine by taking a few minutes to ask about the day ahead or share a long kiss to get the day started right.

When I was dating someone, I often felt like everything I said or sent had to have weight. I suppose that’s normal early on, but building a strong friendship is about being honest, open, and free. If you free yourself up to do small things, he’ll likely feel the same way. Little check-ins throughout the day or week keep you on each others’ minds and build positive feelings around your relationship. You’ll also find that when big things come along, the little things you’ve collected are strong enough to support them.

03. Don’t complain about him to other people.

I read an article this week claiming scientific proof that complaining only sets you up for more negativity. I can’t vouch for the research, but I’ve lived that truth. The more I complain about someone—a classmate, a coworker, a family member—the less likely I am to think well of that person going forward, no matter what they do. Constant complaining turns into self-fulfilling prophecy. And it’s no different with your guy.

For some reason, it seems expected that we’ll gripe about guys with our friends. But if you did the same about one of your girlfriends, how long do you think you could stay in a really close, open, and honest relationship with her? So try your best to resist the urge. If you find you’re about to complain, trade your comment out for something positive.

But everyone needs to vent, right? Maybe not, but if you really feel like you need to hash out a problem with a friend, pick one trustworthy, nonjudgmental person with whom you can share your grievances, and then do your best to let it go.

04. Be nice.

I’m not a marriage counselor, but I feel like it all comes down to being nice. Fortunately, Zach Brittle is a marriage counselor and in this Verily article, he advises, “You cannot underestimate the power of positive sentiment as a sustaining factor in happiness and stability for couples.” Kindness is key.

We all want to find the perfect guy, but we also have to accept the fact that no one is, in fact, perfect. He’ll get grumpy. He’ll cheer too loud for his favorite team. He’ll say the wrong thing or give the wrong present. And so will you. You don’t drop your friends for minor missteps. Why not give your guy the same grace?

Don’t worry. Being nice doesn’t mean you’re a doormat, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have strong feelings about him being late to dinner. It means you give him the benefit of the doubt. You don’t jump to conclusions or get overly angry at small slights. You treat him like you’d want to be treated. You ask about things that matter to him, even if they don’t really interest you, because you want to learn more about him. And you share what matters to you, too. It means you give and you take.

Everyone says relationships take work, and they do. But what rarely gets said is that much of that work is becoming better friends…and that happens to be really fun. I can honestly say that my husband is my best friend, and we’ve had a blast building that friendship. Besides, when the fancy dinner is over and the champagne runs dry, wouldn’t you love to go home with your best friend? Let’s be honest: Champagne is terrific, but sweatpants are forever.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners