Want a Better Relationship? There’s an App for That

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Next time you see a couple at a cafe focused intently on their phones instead of each other, don’t assume their relationship is in trouble. They might actually be working out their conflicts, using well-known approaches from couples therapy. Except, of course, with a digital update. She could be texting, “Picking this restaurant shows you really know me! XOX” Or he may be searching among ten words to explain his feelings about her being late…again.

It was probably inevitable that even that most intimate and complicated of things — romance — found its way into an app. Is this a good way for lovers to spend quality time? No research yet. But several of these apps are built on the best research available on what makes successful couples.

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Take the ideas developed by John Gottman, emeritus professor of psychology at University of Washington and co-founder of the The Gottman Relationship Institute. After 40 years of studying more than 3000 couples in his lab, Gottman developed a relationship recipe that allowed him to separate the happy couples from those who would eventually split.  One key predictor of a couples’ success together involved how much their positive communications with each other outweighed their negative ones.

There was no secret to Gottman’s formula, so building on his findings, he developed relationship tools to help couples who weren’t able to make it to the Institute to connect more effectively: there were weekend workshops, books and DVDs. And now, with the ubiquity of cell phones, most of those tips and skills have migrated into an app that helps couples enhance their relationship wherever, and and whenever they are together.

Love Maps, from the Gottman Relationship Institute, for example, includes ten special-focus apps. Download “Open-Ended Questions,” and your phone will flash: “What do you want your life to be like, say, in three years from now?” or “Is our child like anyone in your family?” If you don’t like those, just shake your phone to get another. The questions are supposed to get partners talking about issues that are important to them, such as career and family goals, as a way to help them learn more about each other.

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Another app, “Expressing Needs,” helps couples to identify and express some of their wants — without complaining, or, as Gottman puts it, “getting them to say ‘what would make me happy.’” The needs could be anything from “I need you to initiate sex” to “I need you to take my side when your family criticizes me.”  Designed to be used when the couple is together and can see each other’s faces and body language, these apps aim to start important conversations.

Gottman’s certainly aren’t the only relationship fixers for your phone; others also exploit the convenience of the smart phone to shore up basic relationship skills such as helping couples to improve their intimacy, reinforce positive connections, have more fun and better sex, and argue more constructively.

Kahnoodle builds on Gottman’s and other marriage research, but takes advantage of the full panoply of smartphone technology with hip graphics to make relationship “work” more fun. And the couple doesn’t have to be together to do it. Each couple has a “love tank” that fills up when their partner does stuff that’s important to them. So that woman texting her partner across the table about his great restaurant choice adds 15 points for giving him “kudos” in one of his top “love signs” or relationship goals, like “verbal praise” or “intimacy.”  Ditto when they give each other “Love Koupons,” IOUs to do something nice for each other, like a back massage or changing the baby for a whole weekend. They can also sign up for fun activities suggested on “Date Nights” (which is how this free app makes its money) or click on tips or reminders of things that will make their partner happy.

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“It’s all about positive affirmation,” says Kahnoodle founder Zahairah Scott Washington. “If ‘thoughtful acts’ rank high on her ‘love signs’ and she recognizes his thoughtful act,” Washington explains, “the couple’s love tank will fill up fast.” Either partner can also spot when it’s running low and take action.

Fix a Fight helps couples deal with the inevitable conflicts  in any relationship. Creator Mark McGonigle, a Gottman-trained therapist and owner of MindWise apps, relies on humor and mutual understanding to guide couples through defusing conflict.

Partners need to be in the same room while the app, sometimes with voice instruction from McGonigle, takes them through steps that include identifying their feelings and rating their intensity. Feel angry? Click on “irritated,” “hurt,” or “enraged” to nail down exactly how angry you feel.  Feel you’re right and she’s wrong? You each get to text your “subjective reality.” For example, you might type: “When you’re late, I feel out of control of my life.” She might say: “When you scream at me to hurry, you spoil my only chance to relax.” After going through several other steps, you again rate the intensity of your feeling. Still angry but now at a 3 rather than 6? That’s progress. The couple then picks something fun to do together. But next time they have the “Late fight” or “Cheesecake fight”—and they will—the app will remind them of their previous negotiations and insights.

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If you learn to fight better or shower your partner with appreciation, chances are you’ll have better sex. And that’s one objective of these apps.  Kindu is only about sex. Want to share your hottest longings without being thought of as weird or disgusting? Pick from a large erotic menu of acts and acting out, and the app will reveal them to your partner only when you score a match. So if you’re afraid to tell him you adore being tied up, he’ll never know—unless that turns him on too.

Can all this added technology possibly be good for intimacy? Again, there’s no science showing that app-y couples are happier. But they are based on sound and proven principles of couples therapy — express what you feel and need, stay positive, respect each other and have fun together.  By promoting these good-relationship habits, these apps can at least point you in the right direction. You’ll know they’re working if you find yourself gazing less at your phones and deeper into each other’s eyes.