Finding the love of your life is a wonderful thing and something that most of us strongly wish to experience. Yet even after we have fulfilled that desire, there is another challenge in the relationship process that we must master: making it last, deepen, and grow. As the poet and songwriter Bob Dylan once said “He who isn’t being born is busy dying.” The same applies to relationships.
Relationships are organic (living) entities that like all other organisms require ongoing support, nurturance, and cultivation in order to thrive. And in order for your love to last it requires frequent doses of interpersonal enhancement, which can take a variety of forms. Giving flowers on Valentines day or buying presents for his birthday or doing the dishes occasionally are all nice things to do, but if your repertoire of offerings is limited to just a couple of forms of generosity offered occasionally, you may end up with a relationship that survives but doesn’t thrive. And in case you’re wondering, there is a BIG difference!
Staying together for fifty years doesn’t necessarily constitute a truly loving marriage. Physically staying together is not the same thing as sharing and deepening love together, yet many couples find that over the years the light dims and the passion fades. Some conclude that such things “just happen” inevitably over time. Boredom and complacency and over-familiarity just set in and expecting something other than that is just, in their mind, unrealistic. Others think that it’s only the “lucky” ones who seem to retain the spark of delight after decades and that ain’t them. Most of these beliefs are simply rationalizations to soften the disappointment of losing the luster that no longer characterizes their relationship.
It may be surprising to you that more marriages die because of neglect than of conflict. Having differences, even some that are irreconcilable is less of a threat to a relationship than a failure to engage in ongoing practices and behaviors that keep love alive and strong. There are an infinite number of examples of what such practices can look like, but for the sake of simplicity, if you’re interested, here are a few:
1. Take (and give) Care. Many people take better care of their cars and trucks than they do their marriages. And although most of us wouldn’t think of driving 50,000 miles without changing the oil in our vehicle, we go months without saying “I love you,” going on a romantic getaway, or simply taking a few hours to be alone together without any competing distractions. Relationships thrive when given adequate attention but they wilt like a dying flower when neglected.
2. Address problems when they come up; don’t wait until later (which may never come or may come too late). Problems generally don’t get easier to deal with over time; they get harder. While breakdowns and disappointments are inevitable in all relationships, they don’t necessarily lead to trouble. Acknowledging and addressing difficulties early on rather than waiting for things to get bad can make a world of difference. Pain denied is pain prolonged.
3.Practice responsible self-care. The best gift that you can give your partner is your own well-being. The more healthy, happy and fulfilled you are, the more you have to offer others. Taking care of yourself involves more than what you eat and how much you exercise, it includes knowing what nourishes your soul and seeing to it that you bring those experiences into your life.
4. Learn to appreciate differences. In relationships, differences are inevitable; conflict is optional. There’s a reason that opposites attract. It’s because they each have something to offer that the other is lacking. We seek out others, not despite our differences, but because of them. Yet the differences can devolve into conflict when we try to coerce others to agree with us rather than appreciating the value of the unique gifts and perspectives we each bring. The French have a phrase for it. “Vive la difference!”
5. Take time to make love. One of the first symptoms of a distressed marriage can be a diminishment in the frequency of sexual activity. For some reason, couples that once thrived on passionate lovemaking are often willing to tolerate a desert of physical intimacy where a lush garden once bloomed. Great sex is more than just an experience of sensual pleasure. It’s a means through which we delight in each other’s bodies, give expression to our desires, show our love, and share the joy of losing ourselves in bliss. If the flame of sexuality is neglected too long, the spark may go out. Don’t wait until the embers are cold; talk about what you want and what’s missing and keep playing!
6. Don’t take your relationship for granted. There’s no such thing as a divorce-proof marriage. If you think your marriage is so perfect that divorce isn’t a possibility, think again. This belief can lead to a kind of complacency. While this may not always end in divorce, it can lead to something potentially even worse: a flat, or stagnant marriage. Viewing your partner through eyes of gratitude means never taking each other for granted. It’s a lifetime process, and the more you do it the easier it gets!
7. Don’t let disappointments turn into resentments. In an effort to avoid conflict many of us try to ‘get over’ feelings of anger or disappointment. There is no problem with doing this when we can genuinely and completely let these feelings go. If we can’t, they are likely to turn into resentment and become a toxic presence in our relationship. Telling the truth about difficult feelings in a respectful and non-blaming way can often bring about greater closeness and understanding, while stuffing those feelings often has the opposite effect.
8. Don’t wait too long to get help. The average couple that enters marriage counseling has been troubled for six years. By this time, it’s likely that workable difficulties have deteriorated into entrenched patterns. By all means, do everything that you can to handle challenges on your own, but be willing to recognize when your best efforts aren’t doing the trick. When you hit roadblocks that you’re not able to overcome on your own, bring in professional help before issues become entrenched and intractable.
7. Don’t forget to Play. When work and play get out of balance in a marriage, a correction needs to be made. Those moments when we think that we don’t have the time to relax and play with each other are when we most need to do just that. It doesn’t require a long tropical vacation to reinvigorate a relationship. Sometimes a short break from ongoing responsibilities can be enough to remind us of why we wanted to be together in the first place. Even if it’s just a matter of grabbing a few minutes of down time together between the time that the kids go to sleep and you do, enjoying each other’s company is one of the best forms of marriage insurance that there is!
8. Practice forgiveness. Nothing erodes the foundation of a marriage faster than grudge holding. It’s poison that over time is highly destructive. Although feelings of disappointment, hurt, or irritation are inevitable in all close relationships, they can dissolve when there is a willingness to forgive and let go of resentment. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time event; it’s a process that occurs gradually and incrementally over time. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it doesn’t even seem possible. But with an intention to heal, steps in the right direction can be taken even in the most strained of circumstances. Don’t wait too long to learn to forgive. Do it now!
Admittedly, this just a starter kit, it gives you some examples of a few the things that anyone can do to keep their relationships from falling into the danger zone. We not only maintain a high level of mutually well-being, but create an ever-expanding cycle of good will that will provide years of ever-increasing pleasure, goodwill, and fulfillment.
Practicing these simple suggestions may at first require some effort or feel awkward. But after some repetitions they will become habits that feel more natural. The rewards you experience in the process will reinforce your motivation to make those habits into a way of life.
What are you waiting for?