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SALT LAKE CITY — If you’ve been married longer than six months, you have probably discovered that marriage is not just flowers, frills and fun. It takes actual work to maintain the desire to stay married to someone who is a lot more “real” than you originally perceived. Sometimes the word “work” seems to have negative connotations when it comes to relationships. After all, it doesn’t seem very romantic to have to actually make a conscious decision to smile at your spouse. Where’s the magic in that?
But in fact, there is magic in taking deliberate actions to create, maintain, and build your marriage. When you are still holding hands 50 years later, it will feel magical and look magical to those around you. But you’ll know better. You’ll know, like any good magician, the secret behind the appearance — years of work, patience and persistence.
This year can be a great year for your relationship. Couples often make vague resolutions without really knowing why, what steps to take, or how to follow through. Here is a list of really simple, doable goals I suggest when working with couples to improve their marriages:
Do you remember when you actually planned a date? It’s easy for couples to get into comfortable dating ruts — which aren’t all bad — but sometimes can cause a relationship to lose some momentum. Other times, couples stop dating altogether. Just because you’re married to each other doesn’t mean the courtship stops. On the contrary, it’s now more important than ever.
How to do it: Starting in January I want you to plan at least 12 date nights — one each month. Ideally you are dating more than 12 times, but if you’re busy with kids and/or work, going on one meaningful date a month is better than not going at all. Sit down together, with a calendar, and mark the day you will go out. Next I suggest you have another paper in which you write down what you are going to do, and who is in charge of arranging details. Third, and this is really important, put that plan somewhere you both can see. That way you know the date is coming; you know who needs to do what; and you have a physical reminder that you are important to each other.
This is probably one of the biggest complaints couples make about each other. Listening is not passive — it’s active. It’s not thinking about what you’re going to say when your spouse finishes talking. It’s mindfully taking in what they’re saying and responding in a curious and respectful manner. Too often we are very concerned about making sure we get our point across instead of trying to actually hear what the other person is saying. Don’t worry, you’ll have your chance. In fact, you’ll have a lifetime together to say what you want to say as a result of becoming a good listener.
By taking deliberate action each and every day you will feel your relationship strengthening, improving and deepening. And by the end of the year, it will feel like magic.
How to do it: This is a fun exercise because it will probably show you what an “out-of-shape” listener you are. Like anything else, increasing your listening skills takes practice and time. If you decided to run a marathon you wouldn’t start off your training by running 26.2 miles. You’d start slowly and build up instead. Increasing your ability to listen takes the same foundational building. So, as a couple, decide on a time when you are going to have a 10-minute conversation about whatever you want. Set the timer. For 10 minutes one person is going to do the majority of the talking while the other person gets to listen quietly, ask follow-up questions and clarify statements. When the timer dings, switch. As you are able to master the 10-minute level you can move to 15 minutes and then 20 minutes and so on. I suggest doing this exercise at least one time weekly.Really Let Go
Inevitably your spouse displays their humanity doing something hurtful, irritating and/or disappointing. You are not perfect and neither is your spouse. If you really took a step back and viewed yourself objectively, would you want to live with you all the time? Unless there is some pathology happening, you and your spouse are probably doing the best you can. Being able to forgive one another for annoyances, personality quirks, or sometimes larger indiscretions is crucial to the longevity of any relationship. Is it really worth getting angry and remaining so over shoes being left out? Would you really be happier with someone who meticulously put their shoes away but may have other bothersome qualities? Some battles just aren’t worth fighting. Decide the important ones, and let the others go.
How to do it: This is tricky because when you find yourself almost tripping over those darn shoes for the 1,000th time it can be difficult to maintain your composure. What I suggest is taking a few minutes to write two lists. One list should contain all the things that irritate you about your spouse and/or the hurtful things that occurred during 2012. Next, make a list of all the things you like and appreciate about your spouse. This list needs to be as long or longer then the first. You might have to get really detailed, but that’s OK. Then, take a good look at the positive list and see which things you can start crossing off the negative list. With the remaining items, make a conscious decision to either have a meaningful conversation with your spouse or change the way you view little annoyances. For example, the next time you trip over all shoes on the floor, see them for what they are — an indication that someone is actually willing to share their life with you.
Really TouchMost couples remember fondly the time before they were married when they could barely keep their hands off each other. Between handholding, back tickling, and good, old-fashioned kissing, it was surely enough to make the people around them sick. Then something happened. We got married, became intimate and the handholding, back tickling and good, old-fashioned kissing started fading away. Touch is imperative to a healthy relationship — and not just sexual touch. Again, making a deliberate and conscious effort to kiss your spouse goodbye on your way to work may not seem romantic but the more you actively decide to touch, the more you will want to touch and be touched, which will then make it seem more natural and less deliberate.
How to do it: First, start by taking a few moments to really remember what it was like to be in that state of just wanting to touch your spouse and be touched in return. Breathe those memories in slowly and deeply. Secondly, make a list of all the ways you like to be touched — and be as detailed as possible. Have your spouse do the same. Ask any clarifying questions if necessary. (Remember the listening exercise up above? This would be a great conversation to have.) Third, pick one or two of the items from your spouse’s list and deliberately do them each day for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks see if your desire and ability to touch has increased and become more natural. If not, keep at it. Just like I mentioned above, sometimes our marriages are really “out of shape” and it takes longer than two weeks to see meaningful results.
The real change you will see
Even if your marriage is so terribly “out of shape” that it’s on the brink of death, these four resolutions will breathe new life and vitality into your relationship. By taking deliberate action each and every day you will feel your relationship strengthening, improving and deepening. And by the end of the year, it will feel like magic.
Alisha is a Life Coach specializing in sex and intimacy as well as the co-author of a recently published book titled "Real Intimacy; A couple's guide to healthy, genuine sexuality." Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or realintimacybook.com