Ask anyone’s who’s married and they’ll tell you: Wedded bliss is hard work. There’s a reason that only one in six duos is actually happy nowadays.
“These silent killers creep up slowly and start to undermine marriages over time, without couples even realizing the deterioration,” says Peter McFadden, who teaches a New York City marriage preparation class. What’s key, he says, is recognizing what’s happening and making changes to tamp down any negative patterns.
Follow this savvy relationship-saving advice to ensure you’re one of those lucky happy couples.
The Sitch: Getting Too Comfortable
The primary marriage killer, according to McFadden, is no longer trying as hard as you did while in courtship mode, before the deal was sealed. A married man of 12 years, McFadden admits even he fell into this trap, thinking as many do, “subconsciously at first, and even consciously later,” that doing less on the romantic front was justified because he’d proven his love to his wife by choosing to marry her. “The appreciative emails stopped, the volume of calls dropped,” he says. “Couples naturally try to please each other in courtship mode. But once once we think we’ve won our partner’s love, it can be easy to relax on the romantic gestures.”
The Fix: Form daily romantic rituals you can stick to. For MacFadden this became having a special way to greet his wife at the end of the workday (a brief swaying dance … adorable, no?) Suddenly start doing one of those thoughtful things you “used to do” again. Buy surprise flowers, write a “just because” love note on the computer screen, text a “Hey, Sexy!” to your partner, call in the middle of the day just to say “Hi.”
The Sitch: Failure to Listen
This happens when one partner stops trying to understand how the other partner is feeling and does not make an attempt to sympathize, says Dr. Tony O’Donnell, whose upcoming book is called Mindful Romance. Instead of hearing what the other is saying, you claim your partner is overreacting, being a drama king or just making excuses.
The Fix: When your partner tells you how he or she is feeling, repeat it back, starting with the phrase, “I understand that when I do fill-in-the-blank it makes you feel fill-in-the-blank.”
Say this in a gentle way while being affectionate with your partner, whether holding hands or caressing, and making earnest eye contact and start the conversation from there.
The Sitch: Appreciation Becomes Expectation
It’s extremely common, says McFadden, “that when you first meet, you’re enthralled with your partner’s best qualities, a sense of humor, a talent for cooking and can overlook any negatives, like messiness.” But not one year into marriage, McFadden and his wife had fallen into the trap. They’d stopped appreciating, and started expecting. “I came to expect a gourmet meal and would be irritated when my wife wouldn’t make me a cup of coffee after,” he admits. “And for my wife, she found that my annoying messiness overshadowed my sense of humour.” Over time, these sorts of things can lead to an increase in petty bickering due to feelings of under-appreciation. According to research by Dr. Gottman, for truly happy couples, the ratio of positive interactions to negative is 20 to 1. And in conflicted couples is 5 to 1 (and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1).
The Fix: Form a daily habit with your partner to say thank you, or I love you, says MacFadden. It doesn’t matter if it’s first thing in the morning or before bedtime, say “thank you for making me this delicious meal, Honey” or “thank you for working hard for our family, Sweetie” or whatever applies to your situation. It may seem silly to you, but finding out what it is you can say to your partner with sincerity and meaning is just building one more positive interaction into your dar.
The Sitch: Stop Spending Time Together
When dating, the whole idea is to plan dates, or things to do together. Sometimes, when married, or even together awhile, making time to make plans (you know, research an idea, get tickets, pick a night) can just stop happening. MacFadden says, “Once the prospect of becoming parents was potentially imminent for my wife and I, I began to focus on my career and the need to support the family we hoped to have. So even before having kids, the desire to have kids led us to focus less on each other.” And this is far from uncommon, he says.
The Fix: Each make a list of the things you most enjoy doing together, from dancing to making pottery or watching movies at the theatre. Then compare and agree to hit certain activity points each week, month and year. Maybe you agree to take one trip to the beach each year, see one movie per month, take a cooking class each season. Whatever it is, make it happen. Also consider having one night at home a week when you disconnect and spend time together, meaning no TV, computers, video games and phone calls. Just full-attention talking and catching up with one another.
The Sitch: Failure to Express Feelings
That means not talking honestly and candidly about issues, problems, hurt feelings, disappointments, struggles and challenges, says Dr. O’Donnell. He recalls counselling a couple where one partner had extremely low self-esteem and bottled-up issues about failing business ventures and the early and the unresolved death of both parents, which led to affairs and alcohol abuse. Living without a strong sense of self and purpose is a surefire passion eater in any relationship.
The Fix: The couple began fulfilling a weekly date night, attending spiritual services together (for some, this could be yoga, meditation or nature walks), opening up and expressing support, and committing to regular counselling and the relationship improved. Key components were applying acceptance, tolerance, mindfulness, forgiveness and responsibility, says Dr. O’Donnell, which are taught by longterm couples therapist Dr. Gottman.