Love is a Verb, So Get to Work!

Seven Tips for Stronger Relationships

Rom-coms and Disney movies tell the story that once you meet “the one,” then the happily-ever-after comes. With no work. No challenges. Hah! Too many people expect that, once they find the right partner, the hard part is done.

As a dating coach to mostly divorced singles in their 40s and older, I review what happened in my clients’ failed marriages. A significant percentage of my clients went into their first marriages thinking that, because they loved each other and they had so much in common, their marriages would be successful. But the reality is it isn’t that easy.

One couple came to see me when the husband, let’s call him John, realized that he had romantic feelings for a woman at work. John didn’t want to “wreck” his family. He still loved his wife and didn’t want to be a “part-time Dad” to his four children. John told his wife, Sue, about his feelings for his coworker, and they started therapy. It was very clear that John and Sue loved each other and that their marriage had a strong foundation. It was also clear that John and Sue had grown apart. John’s all-consuming career as a serial entrepreneur and Sue’s commitment to the busy lives of their four children led to the couple living almost separate lives. Below are the strategies that John and Sue had to learn and put into consistent practice to save their marriage.

Three Tips to Strengthen Your Marriage

  • Stay connected by doing activities that you enjoy together. Think back to when you were dating—what did you love to do together? Delicious dinners at the latest hot SF restaurant? Schedule a dinner date once a week, then have fun figuring out what restaurant to go to next. Winter weekends skiing in Tahoe? Get up there now—without the kids—and make sure you limit the amount of time that you talk about children, finances, household issues, or else you will feel more like business partners than romantic partners.
  • Practice appreciation. Our brains are wired to notice what is wrong around us, so that we can be safe. With your spouse, you need rewire your brain so that you notice the positive things: how they look great in an outfit, their calling you on the anniversary of the day you met, their getting you your favorite kombucha without you asking. Repeatedly remind yourself of the things you first found amazing about your partner. You will feel better noticing the positive, and your relationship will benefit greatly.
  • Keep the fire burning. Sex is important! Schedule time for intimacy just like you do for exercise, meals, and almost everything else in your life. Sex expert Emily Nagoski also advises couples to focus on connecting, not just the big goal of intercourse. She suggests hugging and kissing, as “it reinforces the bond and the idea that you are safe and affectionate with this person,” which can ultimately lead to more intimacy, including sex.
@k_yasser, Unsplash

Taking action on the above three tips will go a long way to strengthening your relationship. But you also need to keep certain actions, specifically communication blunders, out of your relationship.

Avoid These Common Relationship Pitfalls

John Gottman, widely considered the country’s foremost expert on marriage, calls these relationship mistakes “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

  • Horseman One: Criticism. You are going to have complaints about your partner. Express your frustration in a simple, straight-forward manner. For example, you can say “Please don’t look at your phone when I am telling you about my day.” However, if you add a negative opinion about your partner, for example “you never listen to me,” then you turn your complaint into criticism, and this has a negative effect on your interaction. Criticism is common, but try to keep it to a minimum.
  • Horseman Two: Contempt. Eye-rolling, sneering, name-calling, and sarcasm are examples of contempt. Contempt implies that you are better than your partner; it is damaging to your bond and doesn’t lead to resolution of the conflict.
  • Horseman Three: Defensiveness. Not taking responsibility for your contribution to a problem basically puts the blame on your partner, which adds fuel to the conflict, in essence saying “You are the problem not me.”
  • Horseman Four: Stonewalling. Refusing to engage with your partner when a conflict occurs, for example by avoiding eye contact or verbal response, is stonewalling. This makes it impossible to resolve a conflict in a healthy manner.

The presence of one or more of the horsemen does not mean your marriage is over, but it does mean that you need to learn better relationship skills. Dr. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, is filled with practical exercises to help you improve marital communication. A couple’s therapist can also provide expert guidance in relationship skills. John and Sue worked hard to change the ways they relate to each other and to strengthen their bond. They check in with me from time to time and report a much happier, more connected marriage. And John reports only having eyes for Sue.