Sweet beginnings are legendary: Two people meet, are delighted by each other, and fall in love. There is so much hope for a wonderful life together, so many dreams. And some do go on to realize those dreams. Other love relationships falter when faced with the reality of daily responsibilities, resentments — both spoken and unspoken, busy schedules, differing needs for solitude or socializing, growing distance, and crushing disappointment.
A major factor in love cut short is the belief that love is a magic thing that just happens (or doesn’t) and requires little, if any, maintenance.
The fact is, whether the relationship is romantic or a long-time loving friendship, it requires a good amount of tender loving care through the years. What kind of TLC can you give your relationship to help it to grow and thrive through time?
1. Be the first to say “I’m sorry.”
That old line from Love Story about love meaning never having to say you’re sorry is outrageously untrue! When you’re in a loving relationship, you’re always saying that you’re sorry. You may be offering apologies for a forgotten errand, a thoughtless remark, a misunderstanding. You may also be expressing empathy for a mate or a friend’s bad day, career setback, personal loss or disappointment. Apologizing instead of making excuses can mean a lot. So can paying attention and showing empathy for your partner’s sadness over something that may not involve you directly.
2. Keep in touch.
Being truly in touch is not a given, even if you’re living under the same roof. Check in with each other daily. Spend time alone with each other even if you have impossibly busy schedules. One couple I encountered some years ago, who both worked and had a blended family of six children, had coffee alone together for half an hour after dinner every night. The kids knew not to interrupt. This helped the couple to feel in sync even with so many responsibilities between them. You can find the time. Put down the cell phone, look at each other, talk — and listen. Every day.
3. Don’t take distance personally, but do notice when it happens.
We all need time alone, space to have our own thoughts and pursuits, no matter how much we love another. When you feel your partner pulling away, ask, “Are you needing time for yourself or is there something going on that we need to discuss?” Don’t simply assume that a partner needing some distance is upset with you and start withdrawing, too.
There may be times when a partner creates conflict to get a little distance. Anne and Dale, married three years, found that they were having arguments that seemed to come out of nowhere and about things that didn’t really matter. “We realized, finally, that our fighting was to get some personal space in our tiny first home,” Dale remembers now, years later. “So we created a little den space in our basement where Anne or I could retreat when we needed time alone. And our arguments diminished immediately!”
4. Give each other the freedom to have close family and friend relationships separately as well as together.
We may love each other, but have differing needs for socializing, different histories with a variety of friends, and quite different desires for extended family get-togethers. Respecting each other’s differing needs for socializing and not insisting that you always go out or stay in as a twosome can make for a happier relationship overall. It may cut down on incidents of unhappy spouses at parties or family celebrations they’d rather not attend. It may also prevent those tense, solitary times at home when one spouse prefers to stay in and the other wants very much to attend an event.
Rennie, married to Dan for more than 40 years, found a compromise years ago. “We have an agreement that he will attend family events when it matters greatly to me,” she says. “And he won’t sulk or complain, before, after or during. Otherwise, I go by myself and have a great time. Same with friends. I love my times with my best girlfriend. I'm a more loving wife because I have the freedom to enjoy times away from, as well as with, my husband."
5. Build a rich personal history of stories, memories, and in-jokes.
Having these can bring a smile, a tear, much-needed laughter at times when you may be trying to reconnect after conflict or time of distance. No matter how silly these may seem, they can play a role in growing a strong, special bond between you.
6. Celebrate your differences as well as the things you share.
Having different interests, backgrounds or world-views doesn’t have to be a romantic deal-breaker. Too many couples come to counseling feeling hopeless because their differences are tearing them apart. While some differences do need to be discussed and loving compromises made, others can add to the richness of your relationship. Learning to live with, even celebrate, our differences can enhance a love relationship or friendship. If we all liked and believed the same things, life might not be nearly as interesting.
7. Express appreciation as well as love on a regular basis.
Why do so many anniversary cards express the sentiment “I know I never tell you this, but…” And I want to shout “Why not?” Why don’t we express love more often to those closest to us? It's so easy, once you get into the habit, not only to say "I love you!" when you're having loving thoughts of your spouse, but also to let him or her know how much you appreciate her thoughtfulness or sense of humor or patience when you're feeling grouchy or when you realize that your attitude needs some adjusting. It can mean so much to your partner to hear, on an ordinary day, on a regular basis, that she matters to you, that you truly care.
To build a lasting love, we need to be present for each other, to apologize for our own transgressions and, with empathy for life’s vicissitudes, to laugh and remember, to honor our differences, to see each other, to listen and to express appreciation and love for each other not just on anniversaries, but every day of our shared lives.