Whether you’re single, dating or have been married for many years, everyone can use a little help in love and relationships. So why not learn about it on a college campus?

“We go to school to learn science and math and English and history, but we don’t learn how to be in a relationship with others, and it’s absolutely a teachable, trainable skill,” says Sejal Barden, an associate professor of counselor education and executive director of the UCF Marriage and Family Research Institute.

The Marriage and Family Research Institute was founded in 2003 on UCF’s campus and is open to anyone over the age of 18 in the Orlando community. Run by trained professionals, the institute’s services are supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so its resources are offered free to the public.

It runs workshops daily — complete with childcare for those who need it — for couples or individuals who want to learn skills and techniques to strengthen their relationships.

“Our initial results are promising. We have shown to improve relationship satisfaction, their well-being and their levels of perceived stress,” Barden says.

Barden shares insight from her research at the institute that you can start applying to your own life this Valentine’s Day.

Today’s world seems to be constantly in motion. What can couples do to stay connected to one another?

If you can set aside 10-20 minutes a day of protected time with one another, you can really strengthen your relationship. It’s similar to a garden. What makes flowers grow? They don’t need endless amounts of water and sunlight. They just need a little bit of love and care every single day. But you can’t ignore them for six months and hope they are going to live. Just a daily dose of some sunshine and water can make a garden really flourish, and relationships are really no different.

What are some daily actions that can help boost the health of your relationship?

Quality time is at the center of everything. It can be as simple as waking up 10 minutes earlier than you normally do so you can have a cup of coffee together instead of running out the door with it.

Physical touch is also very important, so embrace and hug. Sometimes we’re too busy and it’s just “Bye, see you later!” So, have a reunion when you come home at the end of the day. Take 10 seconds to share in an embrace. It’s amazing what that can do for mind and body physiologically.

Create date nights and prioritize having fun together. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. All a date night means is it’s protected time when you won’t be distracted by technology and life’s demands.

What contributes to a lasting relationship?

There are many aisles in bookstores written on this topic, right? Fundamentally, I think it becomes friendship. I think if you fall in love or stay committed to your best friend, your friendship can ride you through the tough times. Historically, we maybe thought if a person has a certain education level or if you came from similar family origins or if you have the same ideas of the number of children you wanted — but those things are more tenuous. They don’t last over time. Allowing ourselves to be fluid and grow as friends are some of the key pieces of what keep people together.

What are some keys to resolving conflict?

The art of listening is becoming lost. Laptops and cell phones need to be off. Oftentimes, we’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking just so we can get our point across. When we fight fair, we take the opportunity to validate and listen. You can diffuse conflict quickly if you can just listen to what your partner has to say and validate his or her feelings. You don’t have to agree with it or like it, but it’s real for them, and they want to be understood.

One of the most critical questions that we sometimes don’t ask each other when we’ve created conflict or hurt our partner, is “How can I make this up to you?” We do OK with “I’m sorry,” and asking for forgiveness, but we also need to ask, “How do I make this better? What do you need from me right now?” And that can be really enlightening.

What is one thing you should tell your partner every day?

It’s an open-ended sentence: “I appreciate you because … .”

Share one appreciation every day that’s something small and specific so your partner feels you notice them and acknowledge things they have done for you.

What would you recommend couples do this Valentine’s Day?

In an ideal world, every day we would celebrate our love. But what is Valentine’s Day really intended to do? It’s to carve out a little bit of time to celebrate your story and your love. Take that time to talk about previous memories that are joyful and happy. Really appreciate and admire one another for all you have been through and everything that person contributes to your life. Come up with one wish, hope or dream that you have for the future.


The UCF Marriage and Family Research Institute offers new workshops every month, and all services are provided in English and Spanish. They can be contacted at 407-823-1748 or through their website, mfri.ucf.edu.