Amy and Alex usually looked forward to their wedding anniversary dinner at their favor restaurant, but this time it was different. They stared at the menu and the walls. There was nothing much to say, and the night was long and tedious. In fact, they were both relieved when the night was finally over.
Amy and Alex's experience isn't unique. In fact, many couples experience times when the fire in their relationship loses its heat and the relationship becomes boring and ordinary. The usual "get-up-and-go" gets up and goes, and the couple feels empty and lonely. The energy and passion that shaped their early years seems to have disappeared. Passion is very important for a strong and vibrant relationship. Dr. Robert Sternberg from Tufts University suggests that it is one of three key ingredients of love. "Passion is the hot component of love," says Sternberg."It's what fuels relationships, and keeps them going and exciting."
Sternberg also admits that passion can wane. "The challenge in any relationship is to keep the passion going, because the normal tendency is that as life becomes more predictable and routine, . . . passion sometimes dies." Routines in life are important for keeping everyday life manageable. We leave for work at a regular time, the kids catch the school bus at the same time each morning and the weekly racquetball game is always Thursday night at 6:45 p.m. Here, however, lies the risk for our love lives, because emotional connection and sexual intimacy can also get caught up in the pattern of routine. Connecting with our partner can easily become just another thing to have to fit into an already busy week.
Relight my fire
What can couples do when they feel they have lost that lovin' feelin'? How can Amy and Alex shift their "business as usual" marriage with its lack of excitement and pizzazz back to the time when it was full of energy and vitality? If we knew our home was at risk of fire, we would do everything we could to prepare for an emergency: we would remove any rubbish lying around, clean the gutters, and buy fire hoses. If we knew our car was at risk of breaking down, we would visit the mechanic, go to auto repair classes, and keep a few spare parts in the garage. It's the same with our marriages. When we know that boredom and loss of passion are a risk to the health of our relationship, we need to take intentional steps to avoid that scenario. The following are some suggestions:
1: Renew a sense of romance. Amy and Alex need to take charge and not just drift along with life's everyday demands. It's about taking the initiative and creating opportunities for emotional and physical intimacy. "Many couples don't create any opportunities for fun," writes marriage counselor Paul Bogacs. "When you ask them what they have done in the last week that was fun for both of them, so few of them can list anything at all. Some say they went to the movies, but that doesn't allow the couple to effectively talk or share together."
2: Build the relationship. This is about sustaining a sense of respect and honor for each other. It's about each holding the other as the most important person in their life and advertising that, publicly declaring their love and appreciation for each other. When you introduce your partner to others, don't just call her "the wife" or "the hubby." This is the chance to say, "Have you met my princess?" or "Let me introduce you to my number one!" This affirms your partner and also helps to reinforce the value of your relationship.
Goodwill, trust and faithfulness are also vital for building your shared love. In her book, "Safe Haven Marriage," Sharon Hart Morris speaks of the vital importance of "heart trust" which she describes as the sort of trust that means no matter what, your spouse will always value you and care for you. "This is the deepest level of trust the human heart can give or receive," says Morris.
3: Learn to "hear" each other's feelings and emotions. This also lies at the core of a healthy love life. Research shows that marital satisfaction is highly correlated with whether a person perceives their spouse to be emotionally and psychologically available to them. It means each partner responding in such a way that the other feels understood, validated and cared for. You know you can readily share what's on your heart—your thoughts, feelings, needs and desires without fear of criticism, rejection or disinterest.
4: Avoid recycling the past. Couples need to keep a strong focus on the present and maintain a warm positive attitude about their relationship. The research by psychologist John Gottman clearly demonstrates that couples who regularly criticize each other will be at a much greater risk for divorce. Gottman shows that we need to offset the effects of one negative statement we make about our partner with five positive comments. Regularly using criticism and contempt in our relationships will guarantee a loss of passion and warmth and build negativity and loneliness.
5: Learn to manage difficulties. David Olsen, founder and president of the "Prepare/Enrich" premarital counseling course, says that all newly married couples need to see conflict as inevitable in marriage, but it doesn't have to be the nasty negative kind that we so often imagine. The healthiest marriages can handle some heavy conflicts because the partners have learned to deal with their differences in ways that make it possible for each one to respect the other. They attack the issue, not the person. It's about staying on track, staying focused and knowing when to pause for clarity, when to stop talking and simply listen, and when to say, "I am sorry, I got it wrong."
6: Sustain sexual satisfaction. This is an area of love life in which most would be willing to pursue some homework. Marriage counselors suggest that a couple's sexual relationship is a thermometer of their overall relationship. If it's all pretty quiet in the bedroom for an extended period, it may suggest a deeper unresolved emotional issue such as stress, depression or worry. The problem may also be caused by a health issue that needs attention. Or it may simply mean that the sexual relationship has become too predictable. As one woman told a counselor, "I need to make an S.O.S. emergency call on our sex life. It's the same old stuff!" For many couples there's no surprise, no creativity, no laughter and fun. There's little lead time, just the usual "Are you awake?" This area of a relationship needs specific planning and genuine creative flair. We need to discover how we can convey a message that our physical love has a high priority. Jesus' statement, "Give and it shall be given unto you," needs to apply also to sexual relationships. We need to change our focus from "What am I getting out of this relationship?" to "What can I give to this relationship?"
7: Get a regular checkup. Just as it's a good idea to get the car checked out every 10,000 miles or so, and just as we get our health checked every year, so it would be good for couples to do a marital checkup at least once a year. They need to discuss their marriage long enough to ask important questions such as, How are we doing as a couple? How confident are we that we're on the right track? Are we satisfied with all aspects of our relationship—our levels of spiritual, recreational, emotional and physical intimacy? And, do we feel strong and confident, or are there some areas where we feel vulnerable? Answering questions such as these can be real eye-openers that can play an important role in minimizing the risk of taking each other and the relationship for granted.
Any relationship that has grown a little cold will usually have some embers that may simply need some gentle fanning to get the fires burning again. Don't rely on just any ordinary breeze, though. Take charge of the task, dedicate the energy and focus it requires, and you may be surprised how soon you'll be sitting around your relational fire toasting marshmallows and getting smoke in your eyes.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, May, 2010.