Home > Thoughts & Observations > Dr. Bob Hatfield’s 12 tips for healthy intimate relationships

Dr. Bob Hatfield’s 12 tips for healthy intimate relationships

Intimate relationships are just plain not easy. Anyone who purports otherwise is either lying, crazy or has never been in one.

I’m not married. I’m 35. Have had my share of relationships and have had my share of disappointments – including some big ones lately.

Each new meeting with someone starts with so much promise, hope and passion, that the thoughts that things would ever turn sour  – and what to do when that happens – rarely ever enters my mind. It is true with most relationships.

A few people know that back in college – this persoanl non-linear journey of mine over many years – I spent a good part of it as a teaching assistant for the human sexuality class at the University of Cincinnati. I had just come off an intense long relationship with my first true love and was thoroughly depressed and confused about why the relationship had ended. In the fall quarter, in an unrelated action, I registered for Dr. Robert W. Hatfield’s “Human Sexuality” course. It turned out to be a mind-opening experience.

After the quarter when I was a student I was invited to be a teaching assistant, a job I gladly accepted. Dr. Bob, as his friends and students affectionately called him, became a mentor and friend. He was one of those few people I have been lucky enough to meet in my life who could take something I was thinking about and shared, sum it up and return a bit of wisdom in a neat package that gave me something to think about for the rest of the day – often longer. I continued to TA for two and a half years after that, including one whole school year as a senior TA.

Dr. Bob’s teaching style was humorous and engaging – and rarely boring. The class – the most popular human sexuality class at any college in the country- despite many rumors to the contrary, was not all about “fucking,” as Bob often referred to it, but instead spent about two weeks on the anatomy and physiology of having sex and eight other weeks talking about how to have good relationships. After all, I remember Hatfield saying, the best human sexuality came in conjunction with the best human relationships. Sex was typically a small part of a relationship if it was good; big if it wasn’t, was one of his tidbits of wisdom. Getting along with the person you had committed to be with was much more critical indicator of future relationship success than just about anything else. Including how good one was or was not in the sack. Just sayin’.

The problem is so many people don’t know – or have trouble remembering – the basic tenants of a good relationship. Many figure it out on their own. Many stay in relationships that should have reconsidered long ago. Some good, strong emotionally intelligent people often find themselves unable to figure out how to have a good relationship. Not saying I necessarily fit into any of those. I’m neither great nor horrible – but know for sure, like so many, could stand to remember and still learn a few things. I have found out lately that I have forgot some of these lessons, too, so it’s good to remind myself.

Sadly, Dr. Bob died on July 19, 2006. Kelly Connell, PhD., also a former human sexuality teaching assistant and Dr. Bob mentee, wrote a great obituary of Dr. Hatfield in the Journal of Sex Research. You can read it here.

Before he died, he had left the University of Cincinnati and was working in private practice in New Hampshire, a place he had loved and visited many times. I found out in 2007 that he died when I went back to UC to visit a former professor in the psychology department and Bob’s former secretary told me the sad news. She was surprised I did not know and seemed genuinely saddened to have to be the one to break the news to me, knowing how fond I was of him. I had not had contact with Bob for probably five years when he died. I had missed him, thought of him often, but had not taken the time to seek him out. It’s something I regret.

Of the many things Dr. Bob wrote, one of my favorites was a piece he did for the Downtowner, a now defunct Cincinnati weekly newspaper. Talking to him about it, he would downplay its completeness, saying he did a “pop” version of research. (He was not a big fan of journalists, having been slighted by a few over time. My decision to not go for a doctoral psychology degree, as he had encouraged me to do, and pursue a career in journalism was always a source of contention between us.) Nonetheless, I like what he had to say here. It has reminders in here that I know I have forgotten over time as the emotions and intensity of a relationship heats up. Surely, that’s the best time to remember them. And knowing that it was relatively hard to find online, I thought I would re-share it here in the hopes that others could benefit from it. It is great information and something I would encourage anyone in a relationship, having a hard time in a relationship or reeling from a relationship ending that wished had not gone that way should read. Enjoy.

Some Facts Psychologists Know About…


What follows are twelve
useful guidelines for couples.

They have been found to be of great importance to happy, intimate, passionate, and committed
long-term relationships. They are derived from research on the 10-15% of couples who have been
together for over five years, …and who are, to a large extent, living the
“happily-ever-after” we all hope for. If you can utilize these suggestions, you
will be taking an important step toward joining this elite group of loving couples. Sit
down soon with your partner and this fact-sheet and give your
a potentially wonderful gift by
patiently working to improve those things that deserve your attention. If you find these
tips genuinely helpful, we suggest you save this information sheet for reference for those
inevitable times when things are not going well in your relationship. The following is a
list of factors that are now known to be some of the important things that separate the
truly happy from the unhappy couples.

happy and satisfied couples make a very clear commitment to each other to make their
relationship (including their sexual relationship) good. They give their relationship the
time and attention it deserves. They place quality time together at the top of their list
of priorities. Other things that demand their time are sometimes canceled or delayed.
Dinners are sometimes put on hold while they talk or make love. They may be late for a
party or work or a visit to relatives. They are careful to arrange weekends or vacations alone
without the children, or friends, or mother-in-law. They sometimes turn down invitations
and they carefully examine events or tasks called “obligations.”
A good and satisfying relationship can happen only when there
is time for it. The current structure of families and the American work ethic conspire to
lead us into a predictable trap. Couples put off intimacy and conversation while they
“get things done.” Cleaning the house, washing the car, talking to relatives on
the phone, watching TV, etc. replace the loving behaviors they used to engage in at
the outset of their relationship. If anything good happens, it comes late at the end of a
fatiguing day, or put off until the weekend or vacation. Happy couples don’t stop making
“dates” with each other and seize upon expected and unexpected times and
opportunities. They make time, take time, and pay a lot of attention to each other.

RECOVERY: The happy
couples are quite unique in that they quickly recover from arguments and hurt feelings.
They have been found to use a method not often recommended by counselors and therapists of
the past. They are often able to temporarily put aside relationship problems to
experience something enjoyable together. They put off further arguments while they go to a
concert, out to dinner, a party, or even to make love. Then, soon after having a good time
together, they often use these good feelings to quickly resolve issues that unhappy
couples spend a lifetime fighting about. The healthy couples try to work on important
disagreements in this way ONLY when they are both at their best.


TOUCH: The happily satisfied couples touch each other a lot. Most of their touching is sensual and not
explicitly sexual or genital. They hold hands, snuggle on the couch while they watch TV,
hug, kiss, take baths together, give massages, etc. Couples who go days or longer without
any prolonged affectionate touch are starting from scratch when they decide to be
intimate. Unlike the affectionate couples, they have a lot of work to do in order to make
something interesting happen. Sex is not that much different than daily behaviors for the
fulfilled couples, but it is a major shift for the less affectionate pairs.

couples know the importance of surprise, tenderness, compliments, and special little
gifts. (Big, expensive gifts don’t predict happiness in relationships, but regular
little ones do.)
They continue “until death do we part” to behave in a
romantic, sexy, and seductive manner toward each other. Touches, unexpected phone calls to
each other, candle-lit dinners, naked weekends together, extravagant compliments, flowers
and little “thingy” gifts from the drug store, etc. are common events. The gifts
and phone calls are especially important since they communicate clearly what words cannot
…that, “I am often thinking of you when we aren’t together.” These couples
avoid the deadly danger of taking each other for granted. If they have gone too long being
busy with other things, they apologize and do something about it.
major feature of actually feeling “in love” is that wonderful sense of
anticipation when thinking warmly about our partner. One day a busy executive received an
envelope from a messenger. Inside was a note from his wife to whom he’d been married for
19 years. It said, “Wanted… handsome man for a grand night of passion! See you at
7:00 PM!” Also inside the envelope was a room key to a nice local hotel. The man said
he got very little work done that day! Happy couples plan ahead and make invitations to
their lover. They know the importance of keeping passion alive. They regularly create
anticipation by, for instance, phoning their partner at work and making a “hot
date” for that evening. They describe their passion and may even offer a
“menu” for the anticipated loving event. Contrast this to the typical couple,
where the only anticipation comes after he or she says, “Wanna do it?” This
category requires regular thought and creativity, but the outcome will usually be more
than worth the relatively small amount of effort.
couples do “work” at their relationships and take them seriously,… but not
somberly. They play at making their partnership fun and healthy. They understand the
extremely high value of humor and laughter. What other couples react to as tragedies,
these couples are sometimes able find humor in. When bed slats break, the telephone rings,
it rains on your picnic, etc., these couples respond with “Wasn’t it funny”, not
with hysterics, anger and anxiety. They just do the best they can and understand that they
are merely human. They take loving and fun-filled care of “the child within”
themselves and their partner.

studies show a direct association between the quality of a couple’s communication skills
and the quality of their relationship. The latest research studies tell us that
NON-verbal communication may be even more important than strictly verbal
communication to intimate relationships.  These couples certainly don’t always sit around talking
about their relationship, but there is an open agreement between them that when something
needs to be said, it will. And, they don’t just talk about the problems in their relationship.
They spend even more time talking about the things they love about their partner and

As an
important part of their communication, these content couples share the big, important
issues such as dreams and fears. They often tell each other the stories of their lives,
sharing their understanding of how their past influences the present. Sometimes the more
courageous even share their fantasies with each other.

PARENTING: Every study on the topic has clearly shown that there is a reduction in several important areas
of marital satisfaction from the birth of the first child until the last child leaves
home. Ironically, children are an ever-present danger to the health of your relationship.
This is more true today than ever before due to the high number of single parents and
blended families, which add other potential problems to an already present difficulty. The
happiest couples maintain a commitment that their children are not going to have a large
negative impact on their love and romance. They do all they can to ensure that their
partner doesn’t often feel second to the children (or anything or anyone else). These
parents make sure that their children respect their privacy, which happens best when the
parent also has respect for the child’s privacy. It is almost easy for some of these
parents to minimize the negative impact of children on the relationship, because the
children are comfortably aware that they are loved, and that mom and dad (or parent and
partner) are very much in love with each other. With very rare exception, it is extremely
helpful to the child’s development to observe regular genuine affection between parents
(or parent and partner).

studies have universally demonstrated that the only healthy long-term relationships are
between people who feel and are equal. Couples who are attempting to have a 1950’s type of
relationship in which the man makes most of the big decisions and the woman gets to pick
the color of the kitchen towels, are not working in the long term. Regardless of one’s
opinion of the women’s movement, the revolution has already occurred. Those who are
attempting to stop or turn back the clock are ultimately meeting with dismal failure. The
extremes of relationship power imbalances in which physical and mental abuse occurs are
the least successful today.

Recent research tells us that couples who deal with disagreements by withdrawing, ignoring
their partner’s feelings, and escalating the intensity of the arguments are heading toward
a failed relationship unless healthier styles of conflict resolution are developed. It is
vital that the woman send clear (mostly non-verbal) signals about her desires for distance
or closeness; and, it is equally important that the man pay close attention to her
signals, interpret them correctly, and respond as quickly as possible if the relationship
is run smoothly.

As you look over these twelve tips for relationships, you may note that
the big secret to a happy long-term relationship is no big secret at all. These things are
generally common sense. But the research in this field indicates that, once again, common
sense is not always so common. As mentioned at the outset, it is obvious that only 10-15%
of couples are able to keep doing most of the things that seemed to come so easily when
they first fell in love. For reasons that researchers don’t completely understand, this
small proportion of couples pay attention to these essentials and keep doing the
things which result in fulfilling relationships. These people are exceptional in no
other way that we can tell. They are not smarter, richer, better looking,
“sexier”, or more educated than you. This is encouraging. It says that anyone
who is knowledgeable and attentive can have a happy intimate relationship.
Resources: The best psychology sites with valuable information and links to hundreds of other
sites on the World Wide Web are Psych Central
Dr. John Grohol, Internet
Mental Health
or Dr. Hatfield’s UC Human
Sexuality Site

This fact sheet is provided as a service by the
University of Cincinnati Psychological Services Center
and the
Division of Student Affairs and
. It was prepared by Robert W. Hatfield, Ph.D. based
primarily on information from Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D.

© 2004 Psychological Services


  1. There is some really good information here. I especially like the points about Conflict Resolution. I think this is where most relationships really break down and fail.

  2. These are all really good points!

    As a relationship expert (www.ChoiceRelationships.com), I would like to add that couples need to know a bit more about conflicts — they are bound to happen! But here’s the good news: there are skills they can learn so that they can handle them better. When they do, their partnerships fare much better. I offer a free teleseminar, “The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship.” To hear it, go to: http://choicerelationships.com/teleseminar_resources.

  3. That’s cool that you took a human sexuality class in school. I’m taking human sexuality this semester and like you stated in the post, there’s a lot of misconception about the class. I’ve shown friends some of the powerpoint slides from the class and it tends to make a lot of people really uncomfortable which I find humorous 🙂

  4. I just heard this evening that Dr. Bob had passed away. I took the course in Fall of ’91 and it was probably the most memorable course I took at UC. At first, it was because of the subject matter but with each class, I looked forward to it for Dr. Bob’s humor and candor.

    If you don’t mind, Joe, I’m going to link to your article from my blog.

  5. Obviously, conflict is the greatest challenge to an intimate relationship. Learning how to manage conflict and how to restore a friendship is one of the most complicated aspects of any companionship.

Leave a Reply