The honeymoon period in most marriages has a shelf life. But does that mean you can’t bring back those fluttery butterfly feelings of excitement and anticipation everyone experiences at the beginning of a relationship? Absolutely not. All marriages maneuver through rough patches. Some don’t survive long enough to come out the other side unscathed. But many do. Here are 11 ways to keep your marriage fresh.
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. Over the course of my 23-year marriage, there are times when I’ve felt my own husband and I were starting to become so familiar with each other that we were settling into a stultifying — albeit comfortable — routine. But there’s a real danger in that. Studies show that nearly half of men who have cheated say it was because of emotional dissatisfaction — and not sex. When men don’t feel connected or appreciated by their wives, they are vulnerable to the advances of any attractive woman who casts a lustful glance their way. And fellows, it works the other way as well.
In his film “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen charged that “a relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” I believe he was right.
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 have maxed out a credit card or two and find yourself hiding the bills each month, you can bet it’s going to come back to bite you. Eventually, whether you’re applying for a home loan or simply talking about the costs of summer vacation, these kinds of money issues will either be brought to light by a credit report or by the simple fact you can’t afford a trip away. Although infidelity usually happens in bed, it also can happen with money. And it will be a tough road gaining back your spouse’s trust if you’ve lied about overspending.
Along that same vein, 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.
I’ve been going on girls’ trips for as long as I’ve been married. Yes, I love traipsing off with my spouse and three kids. But these weekends away with friends are also important. Swapping stories with others and enjoying new experiences make me — I hope — a more interesting person for my spouse to be around. When Katie Couric asked Barbra Streisand the secret to her happy 14-year marriage to James Brolin, she replied “time apart.” “It gets romantic because even the conversations on the phone get more romantic. You need some distance,” Streisand said.
Your 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.
In life, there are big things and there are little things. The big things — draining the bank accounts to support a gambling habit, forgetting to mention that he’s in the federal witness relocation program living under a false identity or that he has a second family stashed in Queens — are of course one-way streets to divorce court. But most of us don’t have problems of that magnitude. Most of us have problems that are more like petty and repeated annoyances, which when fed the steroids of resentment and anger, balloon up like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And we all know what steroids did to his heart, right?
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.
We tend to take advantage of those we love the most — probably because we know they love us and we can get away with it. It’s the old kick-the-cat syndrome. You have a bad day at the office and come home and take it out on your mate. 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.
Ann Brenoff is a Huffington Post Senior Writer/Columnist. She works out of the Los Angeles office, where she is a senior manager. Prior to joining The Huffington Post in 2011, she was on staff at the Los Angeles Times.