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Refreshing a Stale Relationship

Four tips presented in context.

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

At meals or in the car, there are long silences. After 31 years together, they just don’t have much to say to each other. They don’t fight much; they’ve resolved what they can and shrug at the rest. They parallel play: usually him on his computer, her watching TV or reading. They haven’t had sex in ten years.

And then his brother died suddenly. Mixed with the sadness were thoughts of his own mortality: Is that all there is? Should I do something like drive across the country, quit my job and play guitar, have an affair?

He found himself thinking a lot about having an affair but concluded that the stress, the lying, the risk of disease, and especially the risk to their comfortable life was too great. So instead, he decided to have a serious discussion with his wife about how to refresh their marriage. Decades ago, they had seen a marriage counselor, even a sex therapist, but they ended up agreeing, "It’s more therapeutic for us to spend the money on retail therapy.”

And now, he’d try to take matters into his own hands. So he proposed a relationship summit: Each of them, independently, would write—regarding their big issues of sex, money, and recreation—one thing they want to change in his or her self to refresh their marriage. Then they’d show each other what they wrote and agree on what each of them would try to change.

They ended up agreeing that the pain of trying yet again to resurrect their sex life was too great compared with the chance of improvement. So they agreed to remain not-sexual except that they’d try to cuddle a bit in bed.

About money, he agreed that they could now afford to be looser about money. His parents always struggled financially and he inherited the attitude that it's better to save than spend. But now, they had saved enough that they could enjoy some additional wise spending after all those years of parsimony. He didn’t care to spend any more but she was happy that she could feel freer to buy what she wanted and even to do more travel beyond day trips.

And about recreation, they agreed to do more of what they already enjoyed doing together but somehow, as the years passed, had done less of: going to watch high school basketball games, inviting their best friends over for a weekly bridge game or book discussion, hiking along their favorite river, gardening together, taking long drives that end up at some enticing restaurant they’ve never been to. They also agreed that she should feel freer to do activities she loves but he doesn’t: take a dance class, travel to exotic places with a girlfriend or by herself.

They agreed to check in nightly to see if their plan needed tweaking or even reinventing.

The takeaway

That story embeds at least four tips for refreshing a stale relationship:

  • In the absence of a major triggering event, relationships can grow stale. Without it requiring a major life shock, is it time to look more deliberatively at your relationship?
  • A stale relationship can invoke thoughts of having an affair, and sometimes emotions trump rationality but usually, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. So, if you can pull on ropes of restraint, you'll probably end up happier.
  • A Relationship Summit, is a potent self-improvement tool. As mentioned, each partner independently writes what him or herself wants to improve, they review each other’s answers, agree on things to try, and check-in nightly or weekly to see if tweaks or even major changes in the plan would be wise.
  • Changes in a relationship that are most likely to be sustainable don’t require a personality transplant: An introvert is unlikely to become an extrovert, someone who hates processing feelings is unlikely to consistently and actively participate in it, a sex life that's been moribund for a decade is unlikely to improve, a sober intellectual is unlikely to become a funster hipster. More likely sustainable are the changes the couple proposed, for example, doing more of the things you already enjoy doing together.

So, might you want to try one or more of these tips, or even convene a relationship summit?

This is part of a series in which tips are presented in the context of a story. The others are on procrastination, time management, and finding Mr or Ms Right and Managing Your Money.

I read this aloud on YouTube.