Couples are encouraged to look at the importance of learning and practicing the relationship skill of listening—as well as expressing thoughts and feelings.
Strengthening Communication Skills
Committed couples care about and consistently work at the quality of their relationship. They realize that effective communication is important in strengthening their relationship. Couples who have healthy marriages love and respect each other and use many methods to communicate that to each other.
Communication is the Key
Communication is the key to a strong, healthy relationship. On so many levels, communication allows partners to exchange messages about love and other emotions. Effective communication requires practicing the skills of listening and the expression of thoughts and feelings. It is much more than talking, as communication consists of verbal messages (what you say), contextual issues (how you say it), emotional tone (why you say it), and even non-verbal cues (what you don’t say).
Listening is the single most important communication skill as it is the best way to understand your partner. A good listener does more than just hear words; they interpret emotions, behaviors, and respond appropriately. But, how does one become a good listener?
A good listener pays attention to his/her partner’s words AND feelings, the action of which sends a clear message: “You are important to me.” It shows caring and increases the likelihood that your partner will continue sharing their feelings. When listening to your partner, encourage them to talk about what they find important. In the event that you do not agree with their statements, continue to listen without judgment or placing blame. Remember that good listening does not include defensiveness; therefore, do not use this as an opportunity to attack your partner. Good listening can be the key to defusing current and preventing future problems that could arise in a couple’s relationship.
Listening requires that you pay attention to the tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, and physical gestures of your partner. It is important to focus on nonverbal examples of feelings as well as the spoken words. It is easy to be careless and assume that you know what the other person means. Some pretend to listen while doing something else, while others clearly display that they have zoned-out mentally. In order to break these habits, you cannot focus on what to say next or make comparisons to what your partner said in the past. Give them your full attention and take time to think before you respond.
It may be difficult to change poor listening habits, but it is possible. Improving communication is worth the effort as listening to your partner is probably the best way to show care and concern.
Habits We Have That Prevent Good Listening
Prior habits and behaviors are common barriers to good listening. Too often as listeners we concentrate on the response we will give—instead of concentrating on the message we are getting. Our habit of thinking of a response or jumping to conclusions turns off our ability to hear the intended message.
Judgmental behavior takes this poor habit a step further, presenting another roadblock to good listening. A quick response of anger or making fun of what is being said can block out hearing the real message.
Using negative words, phrases, and body language often causes misinterpretations and discourages good listening. When speaking, it is important to use positive (or neutral) words, phrases, and body language to encourage open and attentive listeners.
Habits to Encourage Good Listening
Many assume that their partner knows their needs, feelings, and opinions even though they’ve never actually been verbalized. All too often, that’s just not the case: having the expectation that your partner can read your mind sets both of you up for negative results—hurt, disappointment, misunderstandings. Do you want to avoid this common communication mistake? If so, the solution is simple: State your thoughts as clearly, honestly, and positively as you can.
Don’t avoid talking about something because you are afraid of what your partner will think. Focus on how something is affecting you. Try not to blame or criticize your partner while you are expressing yourself. Don’t use statements like “Unlike you, I…”, or “It is because of you that…”—such statements will undermine any efforts at healthy communication.
Using “I” Messages
An effective way to talk to your partner is through “I” messages—statements that describe your feelings and tell how you are affected by your partner’s behavior. “I” messages can express emotions in a way that is not threatening as they focus on the speaker’s feelings and not blaming the partner.
“I” messages are very different from a “you” message. “You” messages place blame and judge the other person based on their behavior. “You” messages often trigger defensiveness or hostility in your partner and tend to increase conflict. Think about howyou feel when you hear “You always…” or “You never….”
The Mechanics of “I” Messages
“I” messages let your partner know how you feel and why you feel that way. “I” messages have three parts: 1. a statement about the speaker’s feelings
2. a statement about the behavior that caused the feeling
3. the reason for the speaker’s feelings
Practice Using “I” Statements
“I get upset when you criticize my parents because my parents are so important to me.”
This “I” statement follows the three steps we mentioned:
1.It describes the feeling: “I get upset”
2.It describes the behavior: “when you criticize my parents”
3.It identifies the reason: “because my parents are so important to me.”
Different Communication Styles
As stated earlier, communication plays a very important role in partners being satisfied in their marriage. If you would like better communication with your partner, it’s good to understand some of the differences in communication styles.
One partner may be more expressive. Expressive people like to share emotions and feelings. They look for real-time feedback or responses.
Task- or Fact-oriented
Another partner might seldom talk about feelings, and may use facts instead of emotions, as in: “I feel that I’m not making enough money.” This person is looking for acceptance of his/her point of view, not emotions.
When Opposites Attract
These opposite styles might attract each other initially—and, over time, they may have difficulties dealing with what’s going on in the relationship as the relationship becomes more complicated.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
It is important to try to understand each other’s communication style and respond accordingly. To accomplish this, couples should realize that there are no secrets to communication. You get better with practice, practice, practice.
Communicating details about our internal lives is a basic part of an intimate relationship. Speaking and listening at this level is a way to feel connected.
Learning and Practicing New Habits
Effective communication isn’t easy. Teaching and learning new communication skills take patience, patience, patience, as well as practice, practice, practice.
Taking the time to talk is important. Your relationship provides a safe place to share feelings, thoughts, fears, dreams, and hopes. Make a special effort to find time (when the house is quiet and the kids are sleeping) to talk to your partner more frequently. Avoid all distractions during this special time.
In tough times, people feel overwhelmed with worries and responsibilities. Time together as a couple is often the last thing on our minds as we deal with the hassles of daily life. Although you may be busy, stressed, and worried, take the time to focus on your partners’ needs and spend quality time together without interruption. Even a few minutes a day talking about what has occurred can be a relief from stress. Be thoughtful by considering whether those difficult or problem-solving discussions could be reserved for other times when you and your partner are not tired or distracted.
You may need to be the one who starts conversations. It is worth it to be the one who initiates conversations. You can find many ways to open the door for communication if you are sensitive to changes in your partner’s feelings and needs. Taking the time to listen keeps the lines of communication open and improves your relationship.
Finding Time to Talk
• Spend time talking with limited interruptions when the children are asleep. No phone, TV, or internet during this time.
• Notice those times when your partner seems to have something he/she needs to talk about.
• Plan at least one routine family time each week.
• Agree on a time to talk.
• Talk when you take a walk together.
• Talk while you work together on household chores.
• Talk in the car while traveling to activities.
• Talk should not just focus on problems, work, or the kids.
• Plan a weekly date together where you focus upon one another and talk about good things, or small talk, or when you were dating.
Summing It Up
In good times and bad, couples need each other. Good communication does not mean that your family won’t have any problems, or that your partner will always like what you have to say. Good communication means the chances of solving challenges and problems are much higher if you and your partner can express yourselves openly and freely with each other.
Eboni J. Baugh and Deborah Humphries 1. This document is FCS2178, one of a series of the Florida Marriage Preparation series, from the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date November 2001. Reviewed October 2006. Revised December 2009; January 2010. Visit the EDIS Web site at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu. 2. Original written by Deborah Humphries, M.S., extension agent, Taylor County Cooperative Extension Service; revised by Eboni Baugh (2009/10), assistant professor, Department of Family Youth and Community Sciences; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; University of Florida; Gainesville 32611.
One of the greatest difficulties of being a human is that we never can see within the heart, mind, and experience of another person. This is especially problematic in marriage where, based on years of experience, we think we know our partner. We usually are only partly right about what our partner is experiencing.That is why it is so important to draw out your partner’s point of view. A good listener has a big advantage in marriage.
For example, if a wife were to interrupt her cooking, scurrying to sigh to her husband, “I am so tired.” he may think he knows why she is tired. He may believe that her tiredness is from staying up too late at night. Or he may believe that it is from new demands at her job. If, based on his idea of the problem, he gives advice, he probably will offend his wife. “Why don’t you lie down and take a short rest.” His counsel may be well-intended but not welcome. Most adults don’t want advice when they have not asked for it.
What might the husband do differently? When your partner expresses pain, offer support rather than advice. The husband may be tempted to impose his own meanings on his wife’s experience by trying to figure things out. Instead he could simply respond to the message she has already given. He might say:
“Sounds like you feel overwhelmed.”
“Tell me more, dear.”
“You’ve had a rotten day?”
Any effort on his part to open the door for her to tell more will probably be helpful.
She might say, “Everything went wrong at work today.” Or “I’m worn out when I get home from work.” Or “I guess I feel pretty lonely.” Even with this additional information, a husband is wise to keep listening. Nodding and listening may encourage her to keep sharing. Keep the focus on what she is feeling rather than give advice or tell her about your experience.
VALIDATE HER EMOTIONS: “I can see why you would feel that way.” or “No wonder you feel bad.” or “I don’t know how you have tolerated it this long.” When a partner feels strong emotions, it is a good time to listen and support. As the emotions lessen, it may be helpful to ask your partner how you can help: “Do you want me to just listen or would you like me to help you brainstorm solutions?”
EXPRESS AFFECTION: Tell your partner “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I love you.” Understanding and the support it conveys are very healing. In fact, there is hardly anything a marriage partner can do regularly that will build a relationship as much as being understanding.
Because the pain of others makes us uncomfortable, it is natural that we respond to pain with advice, distraction or other efforts to minimize the pain. Unfortunately this prevents the person with the pain from figuring out their feelings and healing from the inside. While it may not be natural or easy for us to respond to pain with understanding and compassion, it can be learned. And it can make a big difference for each partner and for the relationship.
Think about the times that your partner has shared pain, disappointment or frustration. What are your usual responses? Most of us automatically say unhelpful things. Notice if you find yourself using any of the following UNHELPFUL responses:
“What you need to do is . . . ”
Talking about your own feelings and experiences instead of theirs:
“That same thing happened to me. . . .”
Making their pain seem unimportant:
“Everyone has similar problems.”
Maybe you sometimes have used good listening skills. See if you have used (or are ready to try) some of the following HELPFUL ways of showing understanding:
Acknowledge your partner’s feelings:
“I can see that you feel strongly about this.”
Invite more discussion:
“I would like to understand. Please tell me more.”
Acknowledge that your partner’s pain is real for him or her.
“You must feel awful.”
Plan a helpful response to use next time your partner shares pain with you.
Continued Communication is Crucial
When you talk to a friend in person, on the phone, or through an e-mail message, you may share and listen to each other about the small details of what’s happening in your individual lives and how you are feeling about it. The same thing needs to happen in a marriage. Couples who have lived together for many years may think they know everything there is to know about the other person. However, we are constantly changing, and our reactions to what is happening around us change, too.
Tips on How to Listen Effectively
Sometimes, people have to consciously practice how to communicate with another person with whom they want to build or maintain a good relationship. Listening is often more difficult than talking. Here are some ways to truly listen to another person who is speaking. Focus on that person by:
a. Maintaining eye contact in a manner that is culturally appropriate for you b. Lean forward to show interest and focus on what is being said c. Making non-berbal gestures like nodding your head d. Giving simple and positive responses e. Not interrupting even when you disagree or have something to share, and, f. Showing positive expressions, such as possibly reaching out and gently touching the other person on the arm in a non-evasive, comfortable, and supportive way.
Effective communication requires a two-way commitment. As a partner you have the responsibility to communicate with your mate. Your partner also has a responsibility to communicate with you. Communicating effectively with your partner does not come easily and without practice. It takes a sincere effort by both partners. Both partners must love and respect each other and want to nurture their relationship.
SHARING FEELINGS AND LISTENING
Communicating effectively means being willing to share your feelings and being honest and sincere with what you say. It means caring about the other person when you talk together. You should not have to keep your feelings hidden because you are worried about what might happen when you express yourself. Communicating effectively also means being a good listener. You do not always need to be the one talking. You must be willing to hear about your partner’s day, feelings, opinions, concerns or whatever is being discussed. Partners who care about each other and desire effective communication will avoid words that put their partner down, ridicule, poke fun at or demean in any way. They also avoid negative voice tones and negative facial and body gestures. You communicate in many nonverbal ways. Positive facial and body gestures such as smiles, hugs or gentle touches will tell your partner how much you care.
Couples who wish to communicate effectively will be interested in learning ways to manage conflict. Some conflict in a partnership is normal and healthy. It is not so much the presence of quarreling that is the problem in relationships, but rather the presence of defensiveness, hostility, stubbornness and withdrawal. Inflexibility also threatens the stability of marital interaction. Partners wanting to strengthen their relationship will be flexible and look at a variety of options to deal with a problem or compromise. They will recognize problems and validate or acknowledge their partners’ feelings, opinions and ideas. This does not mean that all problems will be resolved or you will always agree with your partner, but it does imply that mutual respect is present in the relationship. Simply, a partner will care about the feelings, opinions and ideas of the other without losing a sense of personhood.
Couples who get along well engage in more positive validation sequences where a problem is followed by a positive reaction or when something good receives a positive response. Positive behavior usually is prominent in couples where friendship, love and respect are present. Strong couples will experience conflict, but it is not threatening to the foundation of their relationship. They are able to examine some of the major issues which may harm the marriage if not appropriately considered.
EMOTIONAL RESPONSES ARE OK
Core issues in a marriage, such as separateness and connectedness, vary with development and a family’s life cycle. For example, the issues for newlyweds will be different than those for new parents, parents of teenagers or retirees. Some issues are “cool” and others are “hot” and may evoke emotional responses with tears or raised voices and blood pressure. Expressing emotions is an appropriate way to handle difficult issues and should not be an excuse to ignore problems or avoid conflict. There may be times, however, when it is more appropriate to raise sensitive issues. For instance, if you are both tired or a child is sick, you may want to set another time for the discussion.
MAKE IMPORTANT DECISIONS TOGETHER
In more significant matters, couples must communicate during the decision-making process, and not only to inform the other partner that a decision already has been made. Couples will want to set boundaries for minor things that can be decided by an individual partner and other things that should be discussed together before making a decision. For many couples buying groceries, repairing the car and disciplining the children might be something one person does independently. But at times, there are circumstances that warrant working together on similar decisions. For example, you may want to talk with your partner if the car is needing costly repairs or if a child is in trouble at school. It is important to be open about issues, problems and occurrences, and not keep secrets from each other. There is, of course, some controversy about how much needs to be shared with a partner. Some feel it is OK to withhold some information or keep some things private, especially if it is felt to be insignificant. Others feel there should be no secrets between intimate partners. Each couple must determine their level of connectness. If you want to be treated with mutual respect and be trusted by your partner, you will want to treat your partner in the same manner. Partners often have conflict when they play mind games with the other through control, manipulation, threats or hurtful teasing. If your partner does not like your behavior or feels uncomfortable because of what you do, stop the behavior. Talk about what has happened and what can be done to make the situation better.
TAKE TIME TO BE TOGETHER
Probably one of the most important things you can do to improve communication with your partner is to plan to spend more time together. Too often couples lead busy lives that take them in separate directions. Communicating effectively also means enjoying some quiet times together. For instance, you may enjoy walking or reading books together. You likely will find it rewarding when you make a sincere effort to improve communication and connectedness with your partner.
We communicate any time we share meaning. While communication often involves words, they are not required. For example, when mom and dad tiptoe into their sleeping child’s room, admire the sleeping one, and smile at each other, they have communicated even without saying a word. Or when one partner provides the other an admiring glance or gentle touch, there has been communication.
When people roll their eyes, hug, walk away, blow a kiss, huff, smile, clench their teeth, hold hands or shake their heads they communicate. Early in a romantic relationship we generally talk often and listen wholeheartedly. We also tend to hug, hold hands and show lots of affection. Later in that relationship we sometimes use communication only for business or disagreements. That is unfortunate.
One of the best uses of communication may be for people to share the simple events of the day. The topics of discussion should not be sources of disagreement. Each person can tell about joys and frustrations in the day. Each should listen to what the other has to say and try to appreciate what those events meant to their partner. A few minutes of mere chatting can strengthen a relationship almost as much as a trip to Hawaii.
We never fully get someone else’s meaning. I surely don’t understand how you feel about the flowers you planted. You probably don’t understand how I feel about my boss. But it builds the relationship when we listen and try to understand what the other person is feeling. We can ask questions. We can listen carefully. We can describe what we think our partner is feeling.
Some things don’t need to be said. It may be completely true that your partner has a funny nose or thinning hair. But talking about it may only hurt feelings. Wise communication requires that some things simply don’t get said. Some things don’t even need to be thought about.
Talks about difficult issues should be conducted when both parties are feeling good.When a couple tries to tackle their most difficult issues at a time when one or both are tired and angry, the result is almost certain to be destructive. A discussion can turn into a battle. Sharing a cheerful request is more likely to build the relationship – and get a positive response – than making an angry accusation.
We can find ways to make problem-solving more productive. John Gottman, a leading researcher on marriage suggests that women find gentle ways to start a conversation. Rather than: “THERE ARE SOME THINGS WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT,” she can say, “I am trying to find good ways to make our family run more smoothly. Can I share some ideas with you and get your thoughts?” Gottman also suggests that men learn how to stay involved and stay calm in conversations. Men’s heart rates tend to skyrocket when they think they are being attacked by their partners. Knowing that, they can learn to stay calm and listen carefully to their partner’s concerns and ideas. They can learn self-soothing techniques such as deep breathing and calming thoughts.
Communication can keep people in touch with each other and strengthen their relationships when used with wisdom and kindness.
What can you do to make an end-of-the-day chat ritual? What is the best time – riding home from work, while cooking, after dinner, later in the evening? How can you make it comfortable for both people? A partner who loves to be busy may want to chop vegetables while talking. A partner who is physically exhausted my want to lie down while talking. Work together to build a talk-time ritual that strengthens your relationship.
Are there some things you say or do that regularly irritate your partner? Maybe you make jokes about her at parties. Maybe you tease him about his baldness. If you know that it makes your partner unhappy, decide not to do it anymore.
For all couples there are some things that continue to irritate. Consider whether there are things that bother you that you can choose to ignore.
One of the most important parts of communication is the effort to understand the other’s point of view. Whether the subject is happy or contentious, it can be very helpful to try to understand what the other person is feeling. Appropriately using the following phrases can help:
“It sounds like you feel lonely.”
“You are very tired of the situation?”
“I guess you feel discouraged.”
“Are you worn out?”
“Do you feel like you are doing it all alone?”
When we try to understand someone else’s feelings, our listening helps that person make sense of his or her experience and helps that person find better answers even when we give no advice. It also can help us better understand the other person.
Sometimes when we are hurt, we express only anger. Are there disappointments or pains you want to express besides anger?
What is the effect of each of the following statements:
“You are so busy you never have time for anyone. I am sick of it!”
“When you get very involved in so many things, we have less time together. I miss having time with you. I guess I feel lonely.”
Personal relationships take hard work. They don’t just happen; they require attention. A relationship can become stronger and more satisfying by focusing on your friendship with the other person and learning how to manage your differences.
Maintaining a ‘strong friendship’
People often think that being married for a long time, or having a life-long friend, means little effort and work goes into that relationship. Whether you realize it or not, meaningful relationships require continual attention. “Strong friendships” are important in our lives, and they are especially important in marriages and intimate relationships. However, keeping a friendship going in a marriage — or with another family member — can sometimes be more difficult and take more time and attention than with a friend.
Here are some suggestions:
Share everyday happenings with each other
When you talk to a friend in person, on the phone, or through an e-mail message, you may share and listen to each other about the small details of what’s happening in your individual lives and how you are feeling about it. The same thing needs to happen in a marriage and with other family members who are close to you. Couples who have lived together for many years may think they know everything there is to know about the other person. However, we are constantly growing and changing, and our reactions to what is happening around us change, too. Unless that is continually shared, a spouse may have no idea a change in the other partner has occurred. Young couples who have an active and growing family can run into the same problem, thinking they don’t have time to share and spend time with their partner. That can be dangerous to a marriage as they may find themselves growing apart and not turning to each other when challenges arise. Having a deep friendship helps us turn toward — rather than away from — a special person during both good and bad times. That is important for long and enduring relationships.
Sometimes, people have to consciously practice how to communicate with another person with whom they want to build or maintain a good relationship. Listening is often more difficult than talking. What are some ways to truly listen to another person who is speaking? Focus on that person by: a) Maintaining eye contact in a manner that is culturally appropriate for you; b) leaning forward; c) making non-verbal gestures like nodding your head; d) giving simple and positive responses; e) not interrupting even when you disagree or have something to share; and f) showing positive expressions, such as reaching out and gently touching the other person on the arm in a non-invasive, comfortable and supportive way.
The second part to listening is making sure you understand the message correctly. Simply say to the other person,
“Now, let me tell you what I heard you saying, and the feelings you seemed to be expressing. Am I correct?”
If not, the speaker can repeat the message with different words until the listener has correctly understood the message and the feelings attached to the message. This is not easy to do if you disagree with the message you heard. It takes patience and determination to hold your opinion until you reverse roles and have the opportunity to be heard.
Show fondness and admiration
It is sometimes much easier to criticize and find fault, rather than recognizing positive qualities about the special people in your life, especially family members. For example, maybe you would like your spouse to help with the housework without being asked. So, you complain repeatedly. In most instances, this will not improve the situation. John Gottman, from the University of Washington, has studied couples for many years to find out what makes marriages work or end in divorce. He found that expressing fondness, encouragement, and admiration toward each other— often in small and unexpected ways—goes a long way in maintaining strong marital relationships. To use this idea with other important people in your life, it may be as simple as thanking your adult daughter for stopping by to see you or giving her an unexpected hug. Gottman says good relationships are maintained when there are five positive interactions for every one negative interaction, a 5:1 ratio.
It takes effort to stop the negative thoughts, remember good times, and remember how valuable that person was to you in the past. Forcing yourself to have positive thoughts about the other person when you are apart helps set the stage for more positive interactions when you’re together.
Here are 10 suggestions for two people who are special to each other:
1. Bring up tough issues softly. When one person wants to bring up a tough issue, bring it up softly at a time that makes sense and by not accusing the other person. For example, if a married couple is having money problems, bringing up the issue on how they use the credit card while one of them is watching a favorite TV program probably is not the right time.
2. Avoid using the word “you” to blame. People feel defensive when someone brings up a touchy issue by saying something like, “You never want to go on vacation.”
3. Use ‘I’ statements to talk about problems. Softly bringing up an issue requires you to say how it affects you without blaming the other person. For example: “When I get no phone calls from you, I feel lonely and sometimes worried because I think maybe I did something to offend you in our last conversation or that something bad has happened to you.”
4. Make messages short during disagreements. Address only one issue at a time and don’t go on and on. You will lose the opportunity to open a beneficial dialogue if your messages are lengthy and cover multiple issues. Be alert to ways you can soothe each other during a heated conversation, such as a response like, “I see.” However, you need to know what is soothing to the other person and what will not cause even more irritation.
5. Be respectful even during conflict. Avoid calling the other person names, being sarcastic, degrading the other person, or bringing up issues of the past as a way to criticize the other person. This behavior is very damaging to a relationship.
6. Agree on rules for difficult discussions. For example, you may need to agree you will not talk about your daughter loaning money to an old friend when the two of you are discussing paying for her computer classes.
7. Suggest a ‘time out’ to cool down. If you find a discussion is getting out of control, ask the other person for a “time out” so both of you can calm down and not say things you may regret later. Be sure to set another time for resuming the dialogue and work at having positive thoughts about the other person, rather than dwelling on the conflict. You could get yourself more worked up during the “time out” if you don’t force yourself to quit thinking negative thoughts about the other person and the issue that has come up between the two of you.
8. Calm your body in times of conflict. Think about ways your body reacts to conflict (e.g. tight jaw, racing heart, pounding headache, tight neck muscles). Think of methods that work for you in reducing body stress (e.g. opening and closing jaws, deep breathing, walking, stretching neck muscles). Use the techniques that work for you to get your body calmed down during a conflictual situation. As you are calming down, try to have positive thoughts about the other person and the good times you have had in the past. It takes about 20 minutes for the body to resume a normal heartbeat and pulse rate when it has been stressed out.
9. Be willing to compromise in ways you both can accept. This means you have to listen with an open and honest ear to each other’s perspective and feelings about an issue. Compromising, and letting the other person influence you, helps to decrease the hurt and pain so the problem doesn’t eat away at the relationship. It also helps to develop an understanding and patience with each other’s faults.
10. Honor each other’s hopes and dreams. Many problems between two people result from conflicting hopes and dreams that have not been thoroughly discussed. Get inside the other person’s world by listening when that person is ready to talk. You may not agree with the hopes and dreams the other person has, but showing you are listening attentively may eventually open the door for more discussion. Prying needlessly, or trying to give advice, will shut off the other person’s willingness to share. Being interested in each other’s hopes and dreams is often hard work.
A few last thoughts…. Healthy relationships thrive in an atmosphere where each person feels comfortable in talking honestly and openly about important things. In this way, minor issues can be talked about before they become larger issues that can damage the relationship. Just as importantly, a satisfying relationship is about creating shared meaning and having a sense of connection to the other person. It is about spending time with the other person and honoring each other’s hopes and dreams. Everyday ways of respectfully talking and interacting with each other make a difference, too. William Doherty, from the University of Minnesota, emphasizes the importance of establishing rituals that connect family members to each other. It can be as simple as saying goodbye in a special way in the morning as family members go their separate ways or making time for each other to share the day’s events after the evening meal. Likewise, friends can establish their own rituals that create a bonding and lasting relationship. Satisfying relationships help create unity among families, friends and communities.
All couples get married expecting that their relationship will remain as warm, loving, and intimate as it was on their wedding day. And for many couples, it does. There’s no secret and no luck involved: These couples have simply learned to devote time and attention to their marriage. Not just sometimes, but every day.
You see, it’s not diamonds and flowers that make a marriage, but the little things. Each morning, he makes you coffee, while you make sure the freezer is always stocked with his favorite ice cream. You’re still spontaneous, taking a Friday afternoon off to explore the countryside and stop at an out-of-the-way roadhouse for lunch. You’re each other’s best friend, there when things go right — or wrong — but still appreciate your time apart. Above all, you learn through the years to accept each other’s shortcomings and to forgive each other for transgressions both large and small.
The fact is, like a garden, you must attend to love. While the sun and rain will do their part to make a garden bloom, you still have to pull the weeds, fertilize, and provide tender loving care.
The good news is that in any relationship, particularly an intimate one, taking small, simple steps can bring big results. So check out the tips below. Most fall in the category of what we like to call “random acts of romance.” You’re sure to find more than a few ways to keep your love alive, vital, and evergreen, no matter how long you’ve been brushing your teeth side by side.
1. Say thank you at least once a day. You thank others for the little courtesies they do you. But do you thank your partner for his or hers? If she makes you breakfast every morning, thank her — and mean it. (How many wives make such a loving gesture?) If he took out the trash without your asking, thank him — even if it’s his job. Saying, “Thanks!” once a day can help you avoid taking each other for granted.
2. Praise your partner for the little things. If there’s something you appreciate about your partner, from the way she makes scrambled eggs to how hard he’s working on the kitchen-remodeling project, speak up! Praising your partner reminds him (or her) that you love him (or her), and knowing you are loved makes you more willing to iron out differences.
3. Do small kindnesses for your partner. The good we do tends to come back to us. When you’re thoughtful to your partner, she’s more inclined to be thoughtful in return. So pick up each other’s favorite dessert, clip or e-mail articles you think your spouse might like, make a favorite dinner, take on the other’s chores, give your spouse a day off with no chores or expectations.
4. Deliver on your promises. Failing to keep your word can destroy the unity and trust in a relationship. It’s better to say, “Let me think about it” than say you will do something but drop the ball.
5.Play a game of show and tell. Though it sounds X-rated, what we’re suggesting is that you and your partner take turns choosing an arts or cultural event to attend together each month. The point is to show your partner what you love, so that he/she can experience it as you do (or close enough). To make this work, both of you have to be flexible: You may have to attend the Saturday-night race at the local dirt track, and he may have to go to the community theater with you. But the reward lies in experiencing each other’s delight and sharing something of yourselves with each other. And who knows — you may have a lot more fun than you ever imagined.
6. Kiss under a full moon. On a gorgeous evening, spread a blanket under the night sky and drink in the beauty and quiet of your surroundings together. You can talk if you wish, or simply savor the silence and being together, side by side, under the stars.
7. Make a fun, flirty change to your appearance. Want to make him sit up and take notice? Color your hair, wear lipstick if you normally don’t, or wear a pretty nightie to bed instead of your flannel pajamas. Want her to suddenly get the urge to run her fingers over your chest? Try a sexy black shirt or unusually tight trousers. The simplest change in your appearance can show your partner you care enough to catch his/her eyes, helping rekindle the chemistry that brought you together in the first place.
8. Play the newlywed game. Do something for your partner that you did when you were newlyweds. Bake him a batch of homemade brownies. Send her flowers after a night of lovemaking. Tuck little notes into his briefcase or leave sexy messages on her voice mail.
9. Have a conversation about the big things in life. When you were courting, did you talk for hours about current events or the meaning of life? If all you seem to talk about now is the grocery list or how much to spend on a new sofa, reintroduce meaningful conversation into your relationship. Asking her about her day isn’t enough. Try this: One night while you’re in front of the TV or in the car, make a provocative (but not hurtful) remark about something your partner deeply cares about — the guy in the White House, a favorite sports team — something that will get his/her dander up. He’ll disagree, of course, which will get the ball rolling. Keep it rolling!
10. Develop a common interest. The couple that play together, stay together. To keep your relationship fresh and vibrant, think of an activity that both you and your partner enjoy, and do it together. The possibilities are endless: gardening, sports, attending classes or cultural events together, walking, hiking, working on home projects. How to get your partner to join you? Be sneaky. Say you need his/her help in the garden, want to do minor remodeling to the bathroom, that a friend just happened to give you two tickets to whatever. Chances are, he/she will have a wonderful time and want to do it again. In time, it may become a regular part of your life together.
11. Do service projects together. Giving to others moves you out of yourself and your own problems and supports a broader, more spiritual view of life. Again, try to pick a service or organization that appeals to you both, whether it’s a mentoring program for disadvantaged youth or working weekends in the local soup kitchen.
12. Rekindle your spirituality. If you’re both interested in spiritual or religious activities, try some religious study together. If you both pray, praying together can be extremely intimate. Same goes for meditation or other spiritual or religious rituals.
13. Get active together. Are you both a few pounds heavier than when you first met? Engaging in a physical activity that you both enjoy can be as good for your marriage as it is for your body, and can reinforce the fact that you’re a team of two. You needn’t run a marathon together (although training for one could provide a lot of couple time). How about tennis? Golf? Swimming? Even gardening can be a workout, if you’re landscaping the yard or tending a large flower or vegetable garden.
14. Set movie night once a month. All right, so he loves sci-fi and action, while you prefer romantic comedies. She is strictly chick-flick and you’re super hero. Doesn’t matter. To find common ground, select movies for the characters, not the genre. For example, in The English Patient, one gets espionage and adventure; the other gets a love story. In Jerry Maguire, there’s football for one, Tom Cruise for the other. And if he wants to have a John Wayne film festival, gently direct him toward shoot-’em-ups that appeal to women, such as The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
15. Each morning, ask, “What’s on your agenda today?” Does he have a big meeting? Is she dreading a phone call to an important client? Is she having lunch with an old friend? Talking about the daily details of your lives is just as important as sharing hopes, dreams, and fears, so asking about those details is a great way to build understanding and rapport. And don’t forget to ask how that meeting, phone call, or lunch turned out. Your thoughtfulness will make your partner feel loved and cared for.
16. Treat your spouse with respect and admiration in public. Whether you’re at a party, a business meeting, or just strolling down the street, give him or her subtle signals of your connection. Hold his hand. Smile at her. Put your arm around her. And never, ever, make fun of your partner in public.
17. Walk out your disagreements. When you and your partner are at odds, ask him if he’d like to go for a walk to hash things out. Being outdoors and walking at a steady pace can melt away the tension so it’s easier to talk honestly, form compromises, or apologize.
18. Learn — and use — the Serenity Prayer. When you see his towel on the floor instead of in the hamper, resist the urge to complain. While it’s understandably irritating, it will undoubtedly happen again…and again…and again. When you start to sweat the small stuff, recite the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” You’ll be amazed at how quickly your resentment melts away.
19. Give your demands a makeover. You want him to hang a shelf? Mow the lawn? Asking her to throw in a load of laundry? Make sure you ask, rather than demand. We all tend to respond better to requests than orders. For example, instead of saying, “You should…,” say, “Could you…?” And instead of saying, “Why didn’t you…?” say, “Next time it would help me if you could try to…”
20.Try to air grievances at the same time each week. We know what you’re thinking — who would do this? But consider this: If you and your partner discuss what’s bothering you in a structured, formal way, these issues won’t come up so often at other times, and if they do, you’ll be able to discuss them more calmly. One more thing: Make the meeting formal. Sit down, turn off the television, and let the answering machine pick up calls.
21. Cuddle in the morning. You may associate snuggling with bedtime, and it is a lovely way to end the day. But cuddling in the morning will keep you feeling close to each other all day. So set the alarm clock five minutes early and snuggle. You can talk, or not. What’s important is that you both start the day connecting physically and feeling secure and loved.
22. Schedule time for lovemaking. Yes, you’re both busy. But don’t let your schedules stand in the way of an activity that’s so crucial to a loving, intimate relationship. The lovemaking may not be as spontaneous as you’d prefer, but there’s something nice about looking forward to a night (or morning, or afternoon) of sex.
23. Always turn in together. This may take some compromise on both your parts. If your partner is dead tired, give up your nightly ritual (television, surfing the Internet, whatever) and follow him to bed at least a few nights a week. Talk about the day, or simply snuggle while each of you reads. And if you’re the morning person, maybe you can stay up to watch the eleven o’clock news. The point is, you’re together when the house is quiet and the demands of the day are done. Make the most of it!
24. Make sure your bedroom is a sanctuary. Your bed is not the place to argue, or bring up complicated subjects, or discuss difficult parenting issues. Your bed is a place for good things only — sleep, companionship, romance. If it becomes a place for hard talks and critiques, one of you will eventually feel your bedroom is emotionally unsafe, and you’ll start to avoid each other. If this is already going on, you need to stop it — declare the bedroom a safe zone, and that all serious discussions are to take place earlier and elsewhere.
25. Pursue your own interests. Go ahead, take that writing class — or pursue any other interest you might have outside of those you share with your partner. It makes you more interesting to your partner and everyone else. Moreover, a little “me time” allows both you and your partner to grow as individuals and reduces the pressure on each of you to fill the other’s every need.
26.Have a regular girls’ (or boys’) night out. Every woman needs time with other women, just as every man needs a night out with the guys. If it’s been a while since you’ve connected with friends or relatives, get on the phone and start arranging a day — or night — spent in their company.
27. Take a weekend getaway. If you present the idea to your partner as an adventure, he’ll be more inclined to get into the act. Once you’ve gotten him excited, the fun begins: deciding where you’ll go, what you’ll do, and how you’ll get there. And to make sure he’s invested in the idea, let him in on the planning. Pore over maps and the travel section of the newspaper together. Discuss whether you should splurge on a room with a hot tub or a fireplace.
28. Renew your vows. Renewing your vows renews your commitment not only to your partner but also to keeping passion and intimacy in your relationship. You can do it once a year by taking a romantic getaway on your anniversary or make it a once-in-lifetime event.
29. Write him a love letter or send her a love e-mail. Don’t worry that you’re “not a writer” — be simple and sincere, rather than trying too hard to be romantic. On simple but good-quality stationery, describe to your partner how he/she makes you feel. Mention specific qualities he/she possesses that you appreciate, or little quirks you find endearing. Recall your past times together and describe your hopes for the future. Slip the letter into an envelope and tuck it in a briefcase or purse. (Just be careful your partner doesn’t pull it out at an important business meeting.) If your partner is the type to snort at a love letter, send an e-mail at work.
30. Read the comics out loud to each other and share funny stories from your day. A 2004 study found that sharing humorous experiences significantly reduced the amount of conflict couples felt.
31. Go shopping (or watch a ball game) with a close friend. One study found that couples who have individual friendships outside their marriage were more satisfied with their marital relationships than those who didn’t.
32. Demonstrate your love by working to improve something about yourself that bugs your partner. For instance, if she prefers you thin, join the gym or take up a nightly walk (preferably with her). If he’s a neat freak, stop throwing your dirty socks on the floor and leaving your dishes in the sink. Saying “I love you” is always nice, but showing it is really fundamental.
33. Always put your marriage first, even if you have a houseful of kids. This is a golden rule: Of all your relationships, your spouse always comes first. After all, the kids are going to leave someday soon; hopefully, your partner isn’t. Plus, giving up your life as a couple to indulge your children simply sets an uninspiring example: Grow up, become an adult, then you, too, can subjugate your existence to that of your children. Putting your marriage first means things like deliberately setting aside time for the two of you, whether it’s a weekly date, a nightly bath together, or dinner alone a few nights a week (feed the kids early).