Couples—When Is the Last Time You Visited Your "Joy Museum"?

If your relationship hasn’t been feeling that rewarding, here’s what to do.

Posted Jan 05, 2017

nd3000/Shutterstock
Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

Has your relationship become flat or blah? Does it no longer seem that gratifying—and certainly not exhilarating? Might it be time for you and your partner to take a trip to your too-long-neglected Joy Museum?

In a previous post I wrote about couples being willing to visit their Hurt Museum to examine distressing situations that left them feeling hurt, angry, or alienated, which still carry a negative emotional charge. The post was about returning to conflictual experience more or less forgotten, but never actually forgiven or made peace with.

As a result (and similar to traumatic experiences generally), these painful, incompletely resolved events remain imbued with noxious psychological residue. And almost inevitably, that negative “sensitization” makes adversarial present-day partner reactions stronger than they might otherwise be. Any event that reminds you, however unconsciously, of an earlier upset can trigger a reaction disproportionate to the present provocation. And such a negative reaction is likely to strike your partner as unwarranted—and prompt them to react in a similarly unproductive way.

Just as couples who purposely revisit their Hurt Museum can resolve former upsets once and for all, couples who visit their Joy Museum can transcend the present frustrations undermining their relationship.

In this retrospective journey you’re returning to the past to remind yourselves of why you came together in the first place. In lives filled with pressures, tasks, and obligations, it’s easy to put your relationship on the back burner or forget to take “time outs” from your responsibilities and individual pursuits to nurture and re-affirm your commitment. And doubtless, an ample amount of tender loving care is essential to all relationships. Intimate unions regularly need to be “replenished” or kept as vital, alive, and rewarding as possible.

Here’s how to rejuvenate your relationship: Find a suitable time (or times) to share with your partner the behaviors that first inspired your feelings of love, affection, and devotion:

  • Remind your partner which of their behaviors most pleased, comforted, delighted, or excited you, which will help motivate them to resume or update these behaviors.
  • Increase the possibility that the nurturing behaviors still present in your relationship—but less commonly displayed than in the past—will increase in frequency.
  • Boost the likelihood that your partner will re-enact these endearing behaviors by explicitly acknowledging how personally meaningful they were to you—and still are. At the same time, you’re expressing gratitude for these behaviors which they may have discontinued. (See another post of mine on this critical issue).

In the deservedly classic couples guide, Getting the Love You Want (1988), Harville Hendrix talks about the process of “re-romanticizing” relationships, partly through introducing, reinstating, and increasing the frequency of caring behaviors. While such re-romanticizing doesn’t focus on the erotic sphere as such, it does speak to our deepest needs for connection—a warm, loving, safe, and secure attachment to one another. Moreover, when couples devote themselves to the practice of deliberately giving and receiving such love-restoring behaviors—when they redouble their efforts to strengthen their relational ties—they may breathe new life into their earlier passion.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, once your prospective partner has endeared themselves to you during courtship, you intuitively act to endear yourself to them. And while you may exert yourself mightily to win their heart, it feels quite effortless. Sadly, however, once a relationship enters the commitment stage—when you're actually living with a partner and becoming familiar with their various flaws and failures (as they, of course, do with yours), you tend to withhold precisely those lovable aspects of yourself and your behavior that initially made your union so precious.

Assuming you’re sufficiently motivated to revitalize your relationship, now may be the time to devote yourself to bringing back what you may have lost simply because the two of you inevitably moved beyond the courtship phase into the (at least somewhat) "disenchanted" phase.

Isn't it worth putting more time, energy, and thought into reinvigorating a relationship that you once valued above all else, but which may have experienced some withering because of lack of nourishment?

The soaring ideals you originally (and probably unconsciously) connected to your beloved can’t survive everyday reality, which unavoidably prompts a certain disillusionment. If you want your relationship to remain as gratifying as possible, it’s essential that you not “moderate” your love for your partner because you now realize they’re not as “special” as you’d originally assumed. They may exhibit weaknesses and shortcomings you hadn’t before acknowledged, and you may feel that they’re not capable of living up to your previously lofty expectations. If you want your relationship to grow and flourish—and many of your marital conflicts to simply fade away—you need to accept your partner for who they are—and who they are not. (Just as you want them to fully accept you, warts and all.)

Once you recognize that, if your relationship is to reach its fullest potential, you must get beyond your present gripes, grievances, and disappointments; and that it’s time to celebrate the positives, you can create a relationship that's much more fulfilling. And nothing will be more beneficial in this endeavor than increasing its positives—which is exactly what going back into your Joy Museum can help you achieve.

The two complementary opposite terms—Joy Museum and Hurt Museum—were adapted from John Shelton and J. Mark Ackerman’s pioneering work Homework in Counseling and Psychotherapy (1974).

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Here are titles and links to relationship posts I’ve written that in various ways supplement this one:

To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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