Learn to navigate your relationship bumps smoothly.
Every marriage has its bumps, and they can pop up at any time. What's important is that you learn to navigate them smoothly — before they send your relationship into a ditch.
No matter how far along the marriage highway you've gone, there are some simple, fundamental rules of the road. Putting them into practice isn't always easy, but it's critical. If you do play by the rules, you'll make your marriage stronger, and the good stuff—fun, sex, trust, affection—will be better than ever.
1. Build up your love balance. Boredom, frustration and everyday irritations can douse the spark between you and your spouse—and more of the same certainly won't feed the flame. Making the good stuff your top priority will. Here's how to do it:
First, consider that it takes up to 20 positive statements to outweigh the harm done by one negative one—or by a steely squint or impatient "humph." So do more of the former, less of the latter. Compliment your wife on her new shoes, or your husband on his new blue shirt. Thank him for helping around the house. Dial her office for a quick "thinking of you" check-in (don't discuss household chores or bad report cards).
Be sure these compliments and thank-yous are heartfelt and specific: "I can always count on you to make sure my car is safe and ready to use." "This new tablecloth is nice—you're always thinking of ways to make our home pleasant." Make eye contact when you smile or deliver a compliment. Try a little joyful noise (a happy sigh, say) when giving a loving touch.
Once you take this approach, you'll realize that, in addition to knowing how to push Mr. or Mrs. Right's hot buttons, you know how to push his or her joy buttons too (and we don't just mean sex). After all, that's how this whole thing started. It won't be long before you appreciate that it's always the right time for small acts of love. Give him a "glad to see you" hug and kiss when you get home. Surprise her with coffee in bed on a rainy Sunday (then stay to talk). Revel in the best qualities; let faults slide. Flash your "I'm so happy we're here together" smile as you schlep the recycling bin to the curb. Resolve to enjoy a long kiss before you turn in each night. You do little things for your kids. Why not for your spouse?
2. Reach out. Human touch aids the release of feel-good endorphins, for giver and receiver. So link arms as you walk into the grocery store. Brush her cheek with your fingertips when you smooch good morning. Revive the ways you touched in the early days—a kiss on the back of the ear, a hand through her hair. Touch is a complex language. It pays to improve your vocabulary.
Adding more of this kind of touch will help you build a fortress of love. That's important, because a couple who form a tight unit can weather any storm (and are better able to stave off infidelity). How do you build this bond? First, support your soul mate. Take his or her side whenever possible if trouble arises in the "outside world." Keep your spouse's secrets to yourself, even when everyone at work spills theirs. Except in a true emergency, don't let anything interrupt "us" time. That's what voice mail and bedroom-door locks are for.
Speaking of "us" time: Make a commitment to spend up to 30 minutes a day chatting with each other about everyday plans, goals and, yes, dreams. One rule: no household-management or "what about our relationship" talk. This is time to build a friendship. Studies show that being friends pays off over time, ensuring a closer, sexier union. And don't forget to make time for intimacy, even if you must log it in your day planner. Schedule sex? Absolutely, if necessary. Spontaneity is great, but if either of you hungers for affection or physical love, don't wait for that special moment.
Another thing you shouldn't wait for: chances to celebrate success. Super Bowl victors. World Series champs. Gold-medal skiers. They all have one thing in common: When they win, they party. And even small victories deserve recognition. If your marriage is humming along, that alone is worth celebrating. Dine out where you proposed. Or book a midwinter-deal trip to Paris. You've earned it.
3. Remember — nobody's perfect. It's tempting to blame your spouse when you feel angry, disappointed, bored, betrayed or stressed out about your marriage. Then it's a short hop to seeing your mate as the one who must change for the marriage to improve.
That's a cop-out. Trying to improve your spouse puts him or her on the defensive and casts you in a dreary role. The result? Nobody changes. Nobody takes responsibility. Everyone is unhappy. And making your spouse the bad guy means ignoring the 90 percent of him or her that's good.
The true fix: Change yourself. When you address your own flaws and seek the best in your spouse, magic happens. Optimism increases. Your spouse feels better because he or she feels appreciated, not chastised. And you both feel motivated to change in ways that lead to even more joy.
One tip to help get you thinking this way: Adopt the Japanese philosophy of imperfection, wabi sabi ("wah-bee sah-bee"), which applies well to real-life love. Next time your guy or gal does something annoying, take a breath, mutter "wabi sabi" and remind yourself that his or her intentions are good, even if the execution isn't. At the same time, don't ignore what's good in your spouse. Each day this month, pick something, big or small, that you like about him or her. Then name it. For example: "My wife is thoughtful" or "My husband makes me laugh." Then think of a specific act that backs it up: "She brushed the snow off my windshield last week." "If I'm feeling blue, he'll joke me out of it."
Finally, honor your own imperfections. Sometimes we blame ourselves for all that's off kilter in our marriage. Too much guilt can paralyze. So, think of qualities you value, tell yourself you have them and think up real-world examples. "I am loving and kind—I gave my spouse the last cookie yesterday." "I am honest—I tell her what I'm really thinking."
4. Add some zing. The classic advice experts give to singles seeking a perfect match: Be "the one" to attract "the one." Same goes in marriage. The happier you feel, the happier your marriage will be, and the easier it will be to manage conflicts. If 15 minutes of morning yoga, a switch to decaf, or a new hobby gives you a relaxed zing, the good feelings can't help but lead to happier, richer moments together.
Meanwhile, admit it: You used to fuss over your hair and obsess over the sexiest item to wear to bed. Now, it's stained sweats and a ratty Rolling Stones T-shirt. Time to spruce up your look. Comb that mane, brush those teeth and throw on a new robe. Feeling good about the way you look makes your eyes sparkle. You're more likely to make eye contact. That sends a spark to your spouse. You know what to do next!
5. Always fight fair. Conflict is a normal, even healthy, part of any marriage. What's important is how you handle it. In a Florida study of longtime couples, joint problem-solving ability was cited as a key factor for 70 percent of satisfied pairs; just 33 percent of unsatisfied couples had mastered this skill. With the right tools and attitude, conflict becomes a gateway to deeper intimacy—the chance to be seen and loved for who you truly are, to accept your mate's adorable, vulnerable real self, and to build a strong union without caving in or silently seething.
First, steer clear of criticism, confrontation and hostility. They're like gas on a fire. University of California researchers who followed 79 couples for more than a decade found that early divorcers fought long and loud and were always on the attack—or the defensive. Happy couples, on the other hand, avoid verbalizing critical thoughts, keep discussions from escalating, and don't use absolutes like "never" and "always."
If a fight does start, try to change the subject, inject gentle humor, empathize or show your spouse extra appreciation. Too late? Call a truce, walk away and cool off for a while.
6. Pick the right time and place. Don't start potentially tough talks if you're not well rested and well fed. Hunger and fatigue can unleash nasty remarks and dark thoughts. Ban booze for the same reason. Save it for when you've achieved detente. That's worth a toast.
Don't ever try to deal with serious marital issues if you've got one eye on something else. Turn off the TV, the phone, the laptop. Close the catalog.
If you're distracted or going out the door, pick another time to talk. You can't resolve conflicts on the fly.
Remember, too, that how you handle these situations doesn't just affect you. Is the conversation G-rated? Will it end happily? If not, stop and reschedule for when the kids aren't around. When they are, keep things respectful and productive. Research shows that children thrive (and absorb good relationship skills) when parents resolve issues constructively, but develop insecurities and behavior problems when exposed to hopeless shoutfests.
7. Open your ears. The single most powerful step you can take to keep a marriage solid? Speak less and listen more. Blame, insults, criticism and bullying predict a bad end, or at least a living hell. When talk turns combative, don't interrupt, offer a solution or defend yourself too soon. When feelings are at issue, they need to be heard. So nod, rephrase or provide a soft "um-hum" to show you honor the emotions behind the words. Sometimes, all we really need to do to feel closer to someone is pay closer attention to what it is that they're saying.