Fielding a Winning Relationship: The Playbook to Success

For some of us, romantic relationships are a mysterious swamp: Why can’t we understand what our partner wants in a relationship?

To clarify, it’s not that many of us don’t want to make our partners happy, sometimes when we hear words like active listening or being more emotional, we usually get confused on how to apply these vague words to our specific relationship. But, maybe it is not our inability to listen and connect emotionally, maybe the opposite is true, maybe we just need to hear the same message in a different language. In fact, maybe you don’t even need to look that far to find a language many people might understand better, perhaps relating a relationship to football will help you and your partner get on the same page.

Below are the seven ways that a happy relationship is just like winning in football.

The four downs of a relationship (plus one for good luck):

In football, a team gets four downs to convert to a first down; well in relationships, it works very similarly. A famous researcher, Dr. John Gottman, has shown from his years of research that happy couples have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. In football, you could run or pass your way to a first down, but you get four chances to do it to keep the drive alive. You just want to make sure you are not moving backwards by result of a sack or negative plays.

In relationships, it doesn’t matter what the positives are; as long as you are moving forward more often than moving backwards, you will have a happy relationship. Just as a team might not pass on every down to get to a first down, you do not need to only get your partner flowers five times (one time might help though), but simple things like a compliment or a pat on the back would work. Just keep the drive moving forward, not backward, with your positives.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation:

NFL players don’t just sit on the couch until Sunday, they are working most days of the week practicing and watching tapes of good and bad plays. It is important to focus not only on the negative plays but the good plays as well in order to understand what is working well and how to build upon strengths.

The same attitude holds true for relationships, you want to not only examine the fumbles (like that time you totally forgot an important anniversary due to stress at work), but also what is working in your relationship, including what you appreciate about your partner and what you feel you have been working at improving. This will help deepen your connection to you partner and your relationship. Beyond just the good “plays”, it’s important to remember that even if your partner is the greatest, relationships take work, and you don’t just need to be on your A-game just on that Saturday date night. Instead, you need to continually be learning about your partner, yourself, and how the two of you think and interact. Researchers have found that the more one knows about their partner, the higher quality relationship they’ll have. Football players do not just wait around for a win to happen, they prepare. You should be doing the same in your relationships, be prepared to have an amazing relationship.

Do not be afraid to challenge the play:

In football, the referees can get a call wrong sometimes. When a ruling is made by the referees that a team disagrees with, they can challenge it, and many times a different referee will look at the tape to make sure the call is correct.

When we argue, people believe they are right. However, when we are stressed out from an argument, it’s hard to see our partner’s perspective. But, it might be easier to see from a third person’s perspective. This can help take into account both sides and see how an uninvolved party might handle things. Most of the time, when you see a third party's perspective, you end up compromising on the issue at hand. Just remember, even paid refs get a call wrong, you will sometimes too; try to see your argument from a third party perspective and challenge yourself to let go of some pride and see the situation from an outside perspective.

R-E-L-A-X, Call a time-out to regroup, rethink, and get back on track:

Aaron Rodgers said it best, sometimes it’s ok to just relax. Football seasons are 17 long, grueling weeks. As a result, even the best athletes need a break to rebuild their body and mind.

In your relationship, if you or your partner are in a heated argument, don’t be afraid to take a break, not from the relationship, but from the argument. NFL players will get massages or ice baths to heal their muscles. Heal your own relationship muscles by listening to calming music or going for a walk if you feel yourself getting too angry. As humans, when we get too angry or stressed, many times stress hormones flood our brains and we can’t even think clearly.  Therefore, anything that will help you unwind can be helpful. When you are calmer and can think more clearly, your brain functions betterThis way, when you come back to the disagreement, you are thinking more clearly and better able to solve the issue with your partner. If you feel yourself worn out in an argument, you most likely will not be able to resolve it without your full health, so a break is always an option.

Sustain the drive:

Most great NFL offenses don’t just continuously throw the ball down the field, they usually methodically drive down the field by running and passing as a way to keep the defense off balance. In fact, coaches rarely talk just about winning the game. Usually, they break down the game into smaller battles, like blocking, blitzing, and tackling well. When these small tasks are completed, a team can be pretty confident in getting the victory.

The same is true in satisfied relationships. We do not need to continuously be spending 100 dollars on nice steak dinners and flowers and chocolates on every date. Small gestures can have large rewards. Just like how a two yard run could set up a play action throw down the field, or sound tackling can prevent a team from converting a first down. Keep doing the small things that keep your relationship moving forward, like showing you care and are thinking about your partner. Remember that the small gestures are key to the longer “passes” and the overall wins in your relationship. Do not forget the small things you can do on a daily basis to make your partner happy, don’t just be focusing on the long passes. Again, remember, any positive yards are good yards.

Sometimes a Field Goal is Perfect:

Most teams want to score a touchdown. However, sometimes teams opt for a field goal. The team that has the most will points win the game. The same goes for physical intimacy. In fact, researchers have actually found that hugging increases happiness and even can improve your immune system! I would certainly take a few more hugs in my day if it would prevent me from getting sick. Sometimes, just holding your partner and rubbing their back can help you win too. Do not think that just because you are close to scoring, you are guaranteed a touchdown.

Run the Wildcat:

A couple years ago the Miami Dolphins introduced the Wildcat offense and it took the NFL by storm. Week in and week out, new formations would be created. The wildcat was so successful because the various formations would confuse the defense. If the Dolphins had lined up in the same formation every single play, chances are, the defense would catch on, and the Dolphins would eventually have to punt.

Try running the wildcat in your relationship. Psychologists from New York have found that when couples do novel activities together, their relationship quality increases. This does not need to be something crazy like skydiving, but simple things like going to a new restaurant, cooking a new recipe together, really anything done together should help. Always be thinking of ways you can incorporate the Wildcat into your relationship.

(A version of this article was previously published at The current version has been adapted by the original author for SMHR with permission from Thought Catalog.)  


Coulter, K., & Malouff, J. M. (2013). Effects of an intervention designed to enhance romantic relationship excitement: A randomized-control trial. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice2, 34-44.

Finkel, E.J., Slotter, E.B., Luchies, L.B., Walton, G.M., & Gross, J.J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict-reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595-1601.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. WW Norton & Company.

Kanter, J. B. (2015, August 11). Fielding a winning relationship: The Playbook to success. Retrieved from 

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