Here are some ways to open more fully to your partner and revitalize your relationship.
When is the last time your partner surprised you--stopped by a flower stand the two of you happened to pass and bought you a rose, or complimented you on something he doesn't usually notice? Of course, revitalizing your relationship isn't just about doing new or spontaneous things, it's mostly about opening yourself more fully to each other. In other words, it's not just what you do, but how you do it. So here's a list of 10 things to improve your relationship, covering both the "what" and the "how," but let them trigger your own imagination as well. The basic premise here is that a relationship requires putting energy into, but like anything else, the more you do, the more you'll get back.
1. Appreciation Practice
This is especially relevant for couples with children but can be helpful for anyone. Often one partner feels that they're doing more of the work, just the basic stuff that's needed to keep a house running. When they complain about it, however, it usually leads to their partner getting defensive, often with both of the claiming that they're each doing well more than half of the work. Regardless of who's right, what's missing here is appreciation. It's difficult to thank someone for what they do when you feel your efforts aren't getting acknowledged. So, instead of arguing who's doing more, try this:
At the end of the week sit down and take turns telling each other all the things you're aware that they did, and offer your sincere appreciation and thanks. Be sure to include little things, and things you've already agreed are theirs to do. When you're done, ask them, "Did I leave anything out?" and acknowledge anything that they want to add. Then switch roles, and listen to their appreciation of you. Sometimes imbalances will still need to be addressed, but often all that's missing is gratitude for all we already do, and you'll notice immediately how much better that feels than fighting.
2. Know Your Partner's Language of Love
In his book, "The Five Love Languages," Gary Chapman describes different ways we express love: words of affection, quality time, gifts, physical touch, and acts of service (such as cleaning, household repairs, etc). Often we express our love to our partner in the way that we respond to most strongly ourselves. For example, if compliments or praise (words of affection) mean a lot to me, I tend to offer them as expressions of my love--and as hints of what I'm looking for! However, that may not be what my partner responds to. So take the guesswork out of it and have a conversation about which expressions of love mean the most to you. This lets your partner know what he or she can be doing that will be most meaningful to you.
3. Act on Your Partner's Love Preferences
This follows from the proceeding suggestion. If you know what expressions of love are most meaningful to your partner, offer him or her more of that. If you find you're resistant to doing so, ask yourself what that's about. For example, are you resentful that your partner isn't more loving to you? Do expressions of intimacy make you uncomfortable? Do you feel just too busy or lazy? If you're willing to explore these questions in yourself, it will help your relationship as well. And then, I encourage you to take action even if it's a little uncomfortable. Stretching ourselves is how we grow, and there's no better place to do this than in a relationship. So even if you experience your partner as withholding, you may be surprised at what you get back by offering more expressions of love. The bottom line is this, the way to feel love is to be loving, so let your partner know they're special.
4. Eye Gazing
The eyes are said to be a window into the soul, and looking deeply into the eyes of your partner can be a profoundly moving experience. Sit close to each other in a comfortable position and set a timer for seven minutes--that's long enough to let yourself adjust to the experience settle more deeply into it. It's not uncommon for people to giggle or laugh out of discomfort with the intimacy that this can evoke, or the uncomfortableness that some of us have with allowing ourselves to be fully seen. Just allow whatever experience is evoked to occur, and stay present to your own breathing even as you continue to look into your partner's eyes—this person whom you sometimes fight with and are annoyed by, but who also has had their own hardships and wants to experience health and love, just like you. When you're done you can share your experiences.
Almost any change in what you're doing, including how you talk about sex, can be a turn-on. There are innumerable articles and books about how to have better sex, with many useful suggestions. I mention one, making sex dates, because many people think that takes the spontaneity out of sex. In fact, it's a way of prioritizing your sexual life; what you do with that time can be as spontaneous and varied as you like. If you're not satisfied with your sex life, however, then it's first worth considering why. Baring a physical cause (including, for example, sleep apnea), ask if you're simply bored, or perhaps holding resentments that aren't allowing you to open up to your partner in bed. Don't expect your sex life to improve until those are addressed, though for longstanding issues the help of a therapist may be useful and necessary.
Otherwise, try going back to some basics, like telling your partner exactly what you like. Start with each person taking about five minutes and describing your preferences or things you'd like to try. If you want to demonstrate a way of touching or kissing, do this on the inside of your partner's wrist. The listening partner should just affirm what is said—you can talk after about your comfort level with your partner's desires. This can be a vulnerable exercise, but you are responsible for your own sexual fulfillment, so communicating what you like is important, and is itself a way of fostering intimacy.
Next week I'll publish the rest of the list, including two helpful communication practices.