1. Remind your partner (and yourself) that you appreciate them. After you’ve been married for many, many years, that passionate kiss when your partner walks in the door can easily morph into a peck on the check that can then morph into an inability even to look up from your computer
2. Say thank you for the little things. I’ve been guilty of keeping score, constantly calculating who had done what. “I cleaned out the kids’ closets, so you have to clean the basement.” “I moved for your job when we first got married, so now you need to move for mine.” “I initiated sex last time, so now it’s your turn.” But playing tit for tat is childish and will do nothing but chip away at the trust and connection you’ve built with your spouse. If you are so inclined, keep score of all the positive things your partner does in a day — and then thank them. Hopefully they’ll get the hint and do the same for you.
3. Practice honesty, even when you’re ashamed. if you feel you aren’t connecting with your partner the way you used to, you need to say something — now. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I once let communication issues fester for months on end, failing to verbalize my displeasure, and my husband and I wound up in marriage counseling for nearly a year. It took a third party — and a real investment on our part — to get us back on track. If I had not kept telling myself that things would get better on their own, we might not have reached what I call the danger zone.
4. Take care of your appearance.
With many years and a few kids under your belt, it’s easy to let your appearance slide. Think about when you first met your partner. Would you have walked around in stained sweatpants and without brushing your teeth? My guess is no. I’m not saying you have to look like Julianne Moore every time you settle in for a night of TV. But I’ve seen too many couples transform from Cliff and Clair Huxtable into Dan and Roseanne Connor — with disastrous repercussions.
Sometimes my husband will say “wow, you look nice” as I’m walking out the door for a girls’ night out. At least pay your spouse the same courtesy you do your friends by fixing yourself up for him or her every once in awhile.
5. Foster relationships outside your marriage. It gets romantic because even the conversations on the phone get more romantic. You need some distance. our marriage should be your primary relationship — but it needn’t be the only one.
6. Watch your words. There are many things you should never say to a longtime spouse, the first being: “Don’t you think our new neighbor is attractive?” That’s a question you just think you want to know the answer to. It’s also never a good idea to start a sentence with: “You know it’s always been your problem that…” Who wants to hear that from their partner? We hopefully all have a pretty good sense of ourselves at this point and having someone you love point out a failing in this way does little to engender a loving relationship. “You always…” or “You never…” Think about it. Neither of these is true. If you start a sentence with these words your mate is certain to shut down or start a fight. Stop for a minute and think about what you really mean to say — and then say that instead.
7. Put away the jumper cables yourself. Most of our problems start out small enough — he borrows the jumper cables from your car and then leaves them sitting in the driveway just waiting to get run over — and from that sprouts a giant festering sore. It leads you to utter words like, “If you loved me you would have put the jumper cables back in my car so that when I get stuck in a bad neighborhood with a dead battery I could save myself,” which, in my household, generally results in a reply like “When do you ever drive in bad neighborhoods?” It is the small annoyances that, if left unaddressed, do us in. For a happier marriage, address them right away and keep it simple. “Honey, did you put jumper cables back in my car?”
8. Relish the silence.
Sometimes the best way to address a problem is to just walk away from it — as in seriously let it go. Not every slight must be addressed. Know that not every insult is intended. Practice letting go as much as you can. Forgive more. Forget more. Bite your tongue until the tip bleeds. And once in a while, remind yourself of why you married this person. Focus on those reasons and let stuff pass without mention.
The trick to successful silence, however, is that you really let the problem pass. If you stay silent and still harbor bad thoughts, well, that’s where ulcers come from. As the Beatles told us, “Let It Be.”
9. Recognize the ebb-and-flow. Relationships aren’t flat-lined; that’s death, actually. Life has ups and downs, peaks and valleys. We all go through periods where the mere thought of life without our partners can bring tears to our eyes and then a week later we can’t stand the sound of their breathing next to us. We’ve all been there. The trick is knowing that you won’t stay in either place forever. Truth is, in a marriage, you spend most of your time in an emotional middle ground. It’s not songbirds chirping, nor is it considering which poison in his pasta will cause the most painful demise.
This middle ground isn’t the couple who sit in the restaurant across from one another without conversing. Those people have actually flat-lined and just don’t know it yet. No, the middle ground is when months meld into years and you know what the reaction will be before you say something. It’s when the book you finished last night just migrates automatically to the nightstand on his side and he tells you about the recorded “Modern Family” episode you slept through. It’s the every day ebb and flow without the waves.
10. Be kind. A much healthier pattern is to start out each day by asking yourself, “What can I do today to make my partner happy?” And mean it. Doesn’t it make more sense to put your best face on for someone you love? Look for ways to say “yes.” This rule applies to parenting as well, but in a happy marriage, people are busy trying to please each other. That sometimes means sitting through endlessly long ball games, putting on a tie, watching a horror movie with your eyes closed, and traveling around old Civil War battleground sites when you really wanted to be vacationing on a beach in Hawaii. It’s doing things for your partner.
11. Maintain intimacy and passion, both inside and outside the bedroom. Intimacy isn’t just sex and passion isn’t just doing it on the kitchen counter. Bedroom habits age along with the marriage. There may be no stronger aphrodisiac than a moonlight walk on the beach that ends in a kiss. There may be no greater display of passion than the zeal of a partner in a hospital room trying to get the nurse’s attention for an ailing wife. Don’t let others define what is a “normal” or “healthy” amount of sex for your marriage. Know that things change, but that doesn’t make them less exciting or fun. And intimacy comes in many shapes, including conversation and cuddling.