Keep the Glow Going in your Marriage
by Thomas R. Lee, Ph.D.
Department of Family and Human Development
Utah State University, 2001
When you and your spouse first met, talking, doing things for each other or just being together was probably very romantic. During that exciting and memorable time of courtship, having someone you admired notice and care about you was a real thrill. How can you keep that glow going in your marriage? Many other responsibilities compete for your attention. Stresses and worries can crowd out time for your spouse and your marriage. It is possible to keep love and romance alive in your marriage with some planning and effort.
Friendship is the Key
Keeping love and romance alive in your marriage doesn't have to depend on going on cruises or weekend getaways. Couples who still "feel the glow" in their marriage are those, who on a daily basis, have nurtured the friendship that is the basis of all happy marriages.
"The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. So men and women come from the same planet after all."
John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 1999
Strengthening the Marital Friendship
1. Stay in touch with each other - be aware of each other's daily lives to keep up on how your spouse thinks and feels. Have a regular time to talk each day about the simple things of the day whether its talking on the phone or spending 15 minutes each evening holding hands and talking.
2. Show appreciation. One of the greatest needs we have is the need to feel appreciated. Most of us do pretty well at saying thanks or giving compliments for the obvious things. To get really good, we need to improve at noticing the not so obvious things. Learn to say thanks for the invisible work (things that only get noticed when they don't get done) such as, "Thanks for a drawer full of clean clothes" or "Thanks for putting that back where I keep it." Also say thanks for the daily efforts of others such as "Thanks for bringing in the paper" or "Thanks for cleaning up the kitchen." Tell your spouse you're grateful for her or him. After a while you will develop the appreciation habit.
3. Show kindness. Doing little things for each other is so simple, yet it is often overlooked. It is especially hard to be kind when our spouse has been critical or unkind towards us. It's just human nature to be less kind in return. But kindness is catching. Your kind words and actions will bring out kindness in your spouse. Try doing simple, unselfish things for your spouse such as listening with patience, helping with a task when they are busy, avoiding an angry reply, or apologizing for something you said. Leave a short "love note" on your spouse's pillow or lunch sack, send your spouse a card in the mail or give some a small gift for no special occasion.
4. Give the gift of understanding. It's true that none of us ever fully understand what our spouse is feeling, but when our spouse is feeling down or upset we can listen and offer support rather than minimizing their feeling or offering advice about what they should do. As Stephen Covey puts it, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Try these steps: 1- Listen with full attention; 2- Give a simple acknowledgement of your spouse's feelings with an "oh" or "I see" or "Mmmm..."; 3- Check out your understanding, "You're feeling upset because ...? Is that right?" 4- Say something to show understanding. "I didn't know that's how you felt..." or "That must have been awful."
5. Learn your spouse's "love language." One language is telling our spouse we love them. Another is showing them we love them by doing some special thing for them. Or we may to want to hug and hold hands and be close. We all probably like to be told and shown in different ways at different times. Which means the most to your spouse? You may want to ask.
6. Make time for fun. Having fun together is essential to keeping the glow going in your marriage. In your busy lives, that may take a little planning. Some things continue to be fun, but others may get to be boring. Add to the fun things you do in your marriage. Try and shake up the familiar patterns. Howard Markman has suggested a simple way to add to your fun things to do list. You and your spouse can each make a list of fun activities you'd like to do. Trade lists. Choose one thing from your spouse's list. Have them choose one from yours. Schedule the activities. Each spouse takes responsibility to plan the activity chosen from the partner's list. Make the scheduled activities a priority.
When you were first dating, you probably laughed together a lot. You can still add a little humor to life each day. You don't have to be a stand-up comic to help your marriage over the rough spots. Learn to bring home jokes or funny stories about something that happened during your day. Cut comics out of the newspaper to share with each other and post on the fridge. Rent a video of a funny movie and watch it together. Try using some props to add humor - like coming to the table in a wig or fake glasses and mustache or serving a rubber chicken for dinner.
7. Balance being a parent with being a partner. Parenthood can bring some special demands and challenges to the marriage including fatigue, increased time demands, increased financial pressures, differing ideas about how to parent, unequal involvement in parenting, and unequal division of household labor. For wives especially, this can result in feeling unappreciated and resentful, and most wives report a decline in their marital happiness after becoming mothers. But one recent study found that about 33% of women experienced an increase in marital satisfaction upon becoming a mother. This was not due to having an easy baby, working or not working, nursing or bottle-feeding — it depended on whether the husband became a true partner in parenting. For their marriage to continue to grow, he has to become a father as well as a husband (Gottman, 1999). To foster this:
• Wives can recognize Dad's role - don't exclude him from child care, let him be the child's playmate
• Dad can give Mom a break sometimes by coming home early from work or being home on a Saturday morning instead of at the golf course
• Dad can share the work - the wife does the majority of the daily drudge work, which leaves her feeling disrespected and resentful. When the wife feels the husband is doing his share, she is happier and couples report a more satisfying sex life. Two other factors are also important – whether he does his jobs without being nagged, and whether he is flexible to sometimes do some of her jobs if she has had a bad day.
A solid marital friendship is a buffer against the problems that arise in marriage. No marriage will ever be totally free of differences, and setting out to "fix" everything we're unhappy about is an impossible task. The more we're focused on problems, the more problems we'll see. Couples are happier when they can focus on the good in their marriage and in their spouse. When the friendship is good, it's easier to do that. And when our friendship is solid and we are happy in the marriage, differences and problems don't matter as much.
When your spouse is your friend, it's easier to overlook their faults. Your spouse isn't perfect (if they were, they wouldn't have married you!). No one is. When your spouse does something that is annoying or even hurtful to you, it is easier to give them the benefit of the doubt when the friendship is good and things are going well. We're more likely to say "he didn't mean it" or "she must have had a hard day" instead of something like "he is so inconsiderate" or "she is such a nag". We make allowances.
Ask yourself if you would treat a friend the way you sometimes treat your spouse. Would you criticize or put down? Would you always be trying to change them? Sometimes if we treated our friends the way we treat our spouse, we wouldn't have many friends. Make your spouse your best friend and the most important person in the world to you. Work to make him or her happy rather than better. Nurture that friendship by doing some of the things suggested here. You know yourself and your spouse best, so think of other ways you can strengthen your friendship and your marriage. With some effort and creativity, you can keep your spouse as your best friend for life!
Website maintained by USU Extension and the Governor's Commission on Marriage with many useful articles and links to resources on strengthening marriage
We Can Work it Out: Making Sense of Marital Conflict. Notarius and Markman. Putnam. 1993.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Gottman. Simon and Schuster. 1994.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Gottman and Silver. Three Rivers Press. 1999.
Couples. Carlfred Broderick. (out of print. check your library)
Fighting for Your Marriage. Markman, Stanley and Blumberg. Josey-Bass, 1994.
Thomas R. Lee, Ph.D., Family & Human Development Department, Utah State University Extension, 2705 Old Main Hill, Utah State University, Logan, UT, 84322, 435-797-1551 or firstname.lastname@example.org