Date night for Alice and Bart often meant shopping at Target or the grocery store. Nothing like choosing lettuce and light bulbs to stir the romantic embers. With a never-ending to-do list and the added responsibilities of a newborn, this dual-income couple found it increasingly difficult to nurture their relationship. Until Alice attended a group counseling session, discovering how to rejuvenate her marriage.
“I learned what brings me joy in my life,” says Alice, a marketing rep in Harrisburg, Pa., married six years. She requested her last name withheld to protect family privacy. “Both of us like to be outside,” Alice says of Bart while strolling recently with their 5-month-old son through their neighborhood. “We try to make time to be together where we’re not distracted” by errands or housework, she says. Long walks or road trips with a sleeping child in tow seem to do the trick. “It reminds me why we’re together.”
It’s no wonder marriages are pushed to the back burner when trying to manage children, a job, housework, financial strains and schedule overload. Unlike these other areas that vie for our attention, relationships tend to “quietly soldier on” until it’s too late, says James Córdova, director of the Marriage Checkup program at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
That’s why even the most successful marriages need a relationship overhaul from time to time, according to psychologists and counselors interviewed for this story.
Here are a few marital issues cited by the experts and their suggested remedies:
Conflict: Where’s the Romance?
Resolution: Experience The Embrace
Hugs will never be the same after you’ve tried this mindful approach from Córdova, author of the new book, “The Marriage Checkup: A Scientific Program for Sustaining and Strengthening Marital Health.”
Enter the hug from a position that does not require straining, he says. “Breathe into the hug. Relax into the contact, turning your attention to the moment, the warmth, softness, pressure of contact. Allow an awareness of all the qualities of the moment. Walk through each of your senses. Experience the totality.”
Now stay this way for five minutes. “It’s quite a bit longer than most couples will hug,” Córdova admits. Rest assured, with regularity, the awkward barriers will disappear, “allowing a deeper, more embodied experience just to be with this unique person.”
“Our minds tend to want to rush off,” he says. “This is an opportunity to practice just being aware. It can be a real basis to foster intimacy.”
Hugging not your thing? Try a little eye contact to bolster your declarations of love, says Dr. Robert Moss, a clinical psychologist in Greenville, S.C. While words may be cheap, the nonverbal message is: “You are worth my time simply to gaze into your eyes and tell you.”
An eye statement tends to lessen the impact of many marital troubles, according to Marriage Counselor Ann Smith, of Reading, Pa. Greeting each other with the eyes should be the first priority upon entering the home after separation, she says. “Put it ahead of the mailbox and bills, even if only for two minutes to see the person you love. Then, when you open the bills, they do not seem so bad.”
Conflict: Who Has Time For a Date?
Resolution: Consider Bungee-Jumping
Undefined plans for a getaway or date next weekend or next month may never materialize, Córdova says. “We look for found time to grab in spare moments. Even though it seems simple, you have to make time because you are never going to find time.”
He recommends couples schedule regular, predictable time during which they can actively explore and experience the world, possibly try something neither one has done before. “They should practice a type of curiosity about each other and about the world.”
Couples who think they know everything about the spouse fail to understand that everyone is evolving, Córdova says. “If you’re bored with the person you are with it’s a sure sign you have stopped paying attention to ‘who the person I am with today is because certainly I’m not the same person as yesterday.’”
Every six months to a year couples should also plan a getaway so they don’t feel as helpless about their relationship and have something to look forward to, he says.
Conflict: Put Up Your Dukes
Resolution: It’s Called Communicating
If you know your spouse is frustrated about something, actively listen without trying to solve the issue, Moss says. You might address your partner: “If we can agree not to look for solutions, I can just to be there to hold you so you’re not alone, so I don’t have to feel like I want to escape.”
Anger is not necessarily a bad thing in a relationship, Córdova adds. Use dance lessons as an analogy for communication. “You are going to step on toes. If you say ‘ow’ and your partner does the same thing, naturally you learn to dance gracefully together.
You get to say ‘ow,’ that pissed me off, but you do not get to attack each other’s character.”
Conflict: The Thrill is Gone
Resolution: Attract A Crowd
Schedule gift deliveries several times a year when your partner least expects it, not just on Valentine’s Day, anniversaries or birthdays, says Moss, who latest self-help book offers marriage counseling, “For Better or For Worse: Am I in Love with a Giver or a Taker?”
“If your wife works, send it to her at work. Get in front of people a special surprise they will see. The attention from others activates positive feelings.”
On the other hand, be cautious about sending gifts as an apology, he warns. Like makeup sex, such gifts may subconsciously force your partner to start an argument to gain the reward.
Conflict: The Honey-Do List
Resolution: It Takes Two
Set aside problem-solving sessions twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour without distractions, Moss says. Take the phone off the hook, occupy the children and alternate presenting a problem, ensuring the listener understands the issue and agreed-upon solution. “If it’s two hours a week, you free up all the rest of the time to do positive things.”
Smith suggests finding a permanent location around your home, outside the bedroom and earshot of children, for face-to-face discussions. Ideally three to four times a week couples should meet here to debrief, away from whatever is bothering them, says Smith, executive director of Breakthrough at Caron, a nonprofit wellness program that helps break unhealthy life patterns.
JOIN US on Friday for PART TWO–How To Use Relationship Renovation Tips with your Co-Workers!