- There are small secrets to keep love vibrant and alive through the years.
- These include realistic expectations, making the relationship a safe place, and facing crises as a team.
- It's important to focus on your partner's positive qualities rather than dwelling on the negative.
The note came on the eve of my wedding and was a striking contrast to the other congratulatory messages coming from friends and family.
It was from Barbara, whose husband Tim is my best friend from college. “Tim and I have found marriage to be a healthy and happy place with a lot of room for growth,” she wrote. “And we wish the same for you. But it’s important to remember that being married does not preclude times of loneliness or depression or other downs endemic to the human condition.”
Looking back from the vantage point of 46 years of marriage, Barbara’s note was, perhaps, one of our best, most lasting wedding gifts. I took it to heart, keeping my expectations of my husband Bob realistic, not feeling panic or blaming him when those inevitable downtimes came.
There have been more valuable lessons over the years: some from my work as a marriage and family therapist and some from life itself. What are the secrets to keeping love alive over the years?
- Keep your expectations realistic. Barbara's wise counsel still resonates. I've seen many couples' love derail over expectations that each always will make the other happy and that downtimes and disappointments are signs that this love was not meant to be. So many give up too soon. In marriage, there are times of distance and times of rediscovering your love for each other. There are inevitable rough spots in life. It can be a blessing to have a loving partner, but it's also important to take responsibility for your own happiness and growth. This can be empowering—and can safeguard your love. Blaming your partner for not rescuing you, or not shielding you from life's rough passages, can prevent you from seeing and appreciating all he or she does bring to your life.
- Make your relationship a safe place. You will not always agree. There will be times of anger and distance. But love can survive if you are gentle with each other. Creating safety in your relationship means no displaced anger, caustic remarks, needless criticism, or hurtful threats. Safety means good communication, even in the heat of conflict. There is a huge difference between telling your partner that you're concerned about his or her choices or behavior and personal attacks that make the other defensive and erode goodwill. It can take hard work, but creating a relationship where each of you feels safe to be authentic, transparent, and real with the other is well worth the effort.
- Focus on the positives, not the negatives, of your relationship. As time goes by, irritations and annoyances can pile up. Your differences become more apparent. To keep your love strong, decide what you can let go. Maybe you can let go of your irritation over your partner's tendency to clutter if you can compromise—the clutter confined to one room or closet. Maybe you can live with a loved one's tendency to repeat the same stories, choosing to hear an old story as a familiar tune rather than an annoyance. Remind yourself about all that is good and enjoyable about your partner. He may be a bit of a slob, but he has a great sense of humor and makes you laugh. She may scroll on her phone more than you'd like, but she's a caring person, generous with her time and energy, and supportive of your hopes and dreams. It's important to forgive each other for not being perfect and to remind yourself of all the qualities that make your relationship special.
- Team up—especially in a crisis. No marriage is immune to crises: financial woes, loved ones lost, job layoffs, or problems with children. A crisis can tear a couple apart—or bring them closer together if they choose to face it together as a team. You may not always agree on the best strategies or solutions. And the crisis may center around one of you and a need for major changes. If you can commit to getting through this time together, often with professional help, your love can survive and grow stronger. Seeking help together is not a cause for shame, but a positive step toward improving your communication, connection, and hope.
- Pay attention to the small stuff. There are little acts and gestures that can add up to a lot in a marriage. A client I'll call Nancy remarked recently how moved she was to see her son and daughter-in-law hold hands or hug spontaneously, and express their love in whispered asides, Post-it notes in lunch bags, or cards on any occasion or no occasion. She noted wistfully that she had never had that kind of affection in either of her two marriages. Making note of what delights your spouse and surprising him or her with a gesture of affection—a special gift, a note, a warm embrace—can go a long way toward keeping your love alive.
- Have fun and laugh together. Marriage is work to be sure, but fun can help your relationship flourish. This doesn't always mean memorable trips or experiences, but can also involve small moments at home: in-jokes only the two of you get, enjoying a shared hobby or interest, laughing together over a film or TV show you both find funny, or making a fun game out of something mundane. One couple I know who both work long hours enjoy surprising each other with what they call "stealth housework." He might quietly fold the laundry and put it away. She might empty the dishwasher and clean the kitchen without his realizing it. And they laugh about how they have, once again, managed to surprise each other.
- Be present. Enduring love can mean showing up for each other: listening without planning a response; enduring the tedium of holidays with relatives or visits from his or her old friends with an open heart and mind because it makes your partner happy; responding to a challenge or crisis with empathy rather than impatience; or living with gratitude for what is good rather than taking each other for granted. It can also mean communicating your feelings rather than closing off and shutting your spouse out when you're feeling sad or scared. Sharing your joys and your vulnerabilities can enhance your love over the years.
- Allow each other room to grow. Some spouses fight change and growth because they fear a partner growing away. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if one partner is impervious to change. However, many more couples find that they fall in love all over again as they cheer each other on toward growth and positive changes through all the seasons of their lives together.
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