Many couples complain that they have lost the spark in their relationship. The mundane chores and busyness of work, getting kids to sports or music lessons seem to drown out the special times they used to have. One couple said, “We don’t seem to be able to touch each other as deeply as we used to. We don’t even know each other that well anymore.” With 30-60 percent of married people experiencing an affair at some point in their marriage, one begs to ask the question, how can a couple restore and even deepen fulfillment and meaning in their relationship?
Few things in life are as satisfying as having a great partner relationship. Having an abiding sense of deep friendship and assurance of your special one always being there for you is invaluable. Couples can weather lots of storms and handle the curb balls of life when each one knows they are not alone. There is the sense that, “someone is always there for me and has my back.” In a healthy relationship the trust goes deep. Even in the healthiest of relationships, hurts and disappointments happen, but because of the strength of friendship and history of treasured shared experiences, couples are better equipped to weather the storms. And, even if you don’t see your relationship falling in that category, the good news is, most couples can become healthier if they are willing to change and grow. Are you willing to become more intentional about growing and deepening your marriage? Here are five things that research shows that you can do to strengthen and deepen your partner relationship:
- Build your relationship on a foundation of noble and meaningful values. After decades of in depth research, Dr.s John and Julie Gottman discovered that having shared meaning was a crucial element in healthy couples. In other words, finding that special cause or the value that makes you tick is important. What are you both passionate about? What are some values and priorities you hold dear? And what is the story behind these values or dreams? Even traditions or rituals like Friday night dates, special holiday traditions or birthday rituals serve to create bonds between partners. These are things healthy couples consider important and spend time sharing with each other. As the different seasons of life change, priorities and dreams may change. Couples need regular updates of each other’s inner “maps” and where we want our journeys to take us. Sharing with each other and becoming involved together build strong bonds that are hard to break.
- Be willing to grow and change. Most of us carry with us habits, expectations, idiosyncrasies and opinions that can cause problems for our partner relationship. Before I got married, there was one thing I asked my husband-to-be: Are you willing to change and grow as we walk through life together? I knew I was, and he said he was. Deal! Through the years, we both have done a lot of growing up, healing, adjusting, forgiving, and tolerating, and I am happier now than ever, both with myself and with my husband. Marriage is such an incredible opportunity to develop self-awareness and build greater character. And this is crucial in life! In this process, becoming aware of my past hurts, destructive patterns, and being willing to process them was vital. Little by little, I learned to be more honest with myself, instead of missing out on growth opportunities by being defensive.
- Learn to fight well. The Gottman’s found that couples who get ugly with each other will have a hard time making it. Attacking your partner through angry accusations of everything they do wrong has shown to be a tell-tale of disaster, especially if it becomes a habit. Is it OK to bring up concerns? Absolutely! But do it in a calm manner, explaining that what happened or keeps happening is difficult for you. It may sound something like this: “When you keep coming late without texting/calling,, it makes me feel unimportant, and I wish that you would be more considerate, so I don’t have to worry.” To sum up this approach: “When xyz happens, I feel ______ , and I wish _______.” Neither does it help to be defensive and refusing to take at least some of the responsibility. Defensiveness can be subtly expressed through body language, or by playing the victim, making excuses for yourself. The better response is something like, “I think I see what you mean.” Or, “you do have a point there.” Learn to stop any disagreement before it becomes ugly. Either take a break when you get worked up (it takes the body about 25 minutes to calm down to where you can think straight again), or break the tension with humor or expression of genuine appreciation. Talking about appreciation:
- Express much of it, along with generous, but sincere encouragement and fondness. Again, research shows that when this becomes second nature for couples, they are on a good path. Many couples tend to think the worst of each other instead of the best. If your partner comes home from work a little cranky and short, do you defensively think to yourself, “what did I do now?” or do you excuse your partner by assuming that he or she “probably had a stressful day at work?” Couples who are in the habit of expressing appreciation and fondness will develop a strong friendship and will not have the tendency to jump to negative conclusions. If you think your relationship could stand a higher dose of expressions of love and admiration, become more intentional about it. Get in the habit of exchanging affirming statements to each other at least twice a day. Text something during the day. Don’t just think it, express it! It is amazing how something this simple can actually change the atmosphere in your home and the culture of your relationship.
- Show mutual respect. Unfortunately, a lot of hard-to-kill traditions and religious teaching have contributed to many lopsided relationships. Many studies show that when one person takes it upon themselves to become the dominant partner and main decision maker, resentment may develop over time. Because of culture and tradition, men have more of tendency to not be influenced by their wives than vice versa, however, it is also true that women can be domineering. When issues come up, the domineering partner may start attacking the other, or they will clam up and stubbornly stand their ground. These behaviors are clear signs that a partner is not willing to accept influence from the other. Questions to ask yourself about your relationship: Are both my partner and I interested in each other’s opinions? Does what my partner feels really count with me? Am I willing to listen respectfully even when I disagree? Do I insist on being the one to make major decisions in our relationship or family? Am I open to the strength and expertise of my spouse? Am I willing to compromise? Where there is lack of mutual respect, there will be resentment, and trust and true intimacy will erode. If you think you tend to want to be the one in charge, be willing to be curious why that is, and be willing to listen and learn from your partner. Your marriage may be at stake.
I believe that as humans, our innate yearning for belonging will push us towards growth and change. People who don’t want to change are not happy people! I work with many couples on a regular basis, and my experience is that most couples can make a turnaround and find restoration of trust and connection in their relationship. Seeing changes and improvement in our lives will lead to heightened sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. And when this happens, we will tend to love and esteem others more, which again will boost our sense of self. This is a great cycle to be in!