One of my couple clients asked me to create a summary of our work together. I know these skills apply to nearly every long-term marriage, so I share them here.
1. Assume positive intent from your spouse. Trust him/her. Build positive interactions. Look for the good. Notice it, appreciate it. Stop trying to control the outcome of every interaction so that you feel less vulnerable. Protect yourself less, be open to one another more.
2. Self-focus: always pay more attention to how you are managing your own emotions/behaviors/words/tones than you are to your partner’s. Think: what can I do to improve our relationship? Journaling, prayer, ritual, reading about emotions/relationships/family of origin patterns.
3. Make every effort to improve your conflict conversations.
Don’t ignore important pain. If you find you are doing a lot of internalizing, mind reading, and stuffing emotions, it’s time to talk. Bring up pain as complaints (about the issue – “I feel”) not criticism (about the other person – “You are”).
Start a conversation gently, “low and slow.”
Expect your partner to initially defend. Wait until that strong reaction passes before you respond. Ask your partner to lower their defense so they can listen, if necessary.
Listen for one another’s point of view. Appreciate whatever truth you can in your partner’s POV. Repeat it to them so they know they have been heard. Share your POV. Check to see if your partner gets what you are trying to say.
If conflict begins to hurt, STOP. Don’t escalate. Take some time out to calm down and return again to the conversation.
4. Cultivate your marital friendship. Remember, however well you think you know your partner, don’t assume you can no longer be surprised. Make asking questions of your partner’s day, experiences, dreams, hopes, memories, plans and pains a regular habit. Do some new things together. Allow one another the emotional room to do things independently. Too much intensity can be just as hard on a marriage as too much distance.
5. Flexible people are more satisfied in their marriages. Recognize and reflect on the fact that the that details of our lives we take for granted as we become adults – our bodies, minds, work, relationships with children, hobbies, friendships, emotions, goals – are changing all the time. Especially make peace with the ongoing aging of your body.
6. Keep emotion primary in your experience of life and one another since emotion is the way our bodies and minds give us moment by moment information. Continue to grow in your ability to notice, name, manage and understand your emotional life. Remember that your spouse is doing the very same thing. Think emotion before you attempt to use logic in hard conversations.
7. Know that the past never leaves us, but we can find creative ways to manage how it informs our present. Holding resentments or secrets is poison to healthy long-term relationships. When someone injures another, the healthiest couples use their spiritual resources of remorse, repentance, renewal and forgiveness to experience the hurt, commit to the healing of the injury and press on.
8. Build a positive appreciation for touch, smiles, eye contact, and physical proximity as expressions of affection and sexuality. Use your creativity to express sexual energy and desire in ways that work for both of you. Be sure to talk to one another during sexual activity so that you are clearer about what works and what doesn’t. If there is a difference in levels of drive and desire, work to blend masturbation and some kind of mutual sexual activity.
9. Share the leadership of your family/couple. Appreciate one another’s unique skills and allow for growth and change. Make decisions together, and think of your marriage as a team, a unit, even as you are always individuals.
10. Remember that life is short, and grows even shorter as we age. Set a daily intention to do the best you can as a person and a partner. Cultivate your spirituality and your sense of humor. Stop threatening divorce; take the word out of your imagination and vocabulary. Re-commit to your shared future; appreciate and marvel at all that you have already endured and experienced together.
Have some advice you’d like to share with long-married couples? Comment below!