Successful long-term relationships can’t run on cruise control. They all require time and effort to grow and evolve – and if the relationship doesn’t grow, then the people in it will either grow out of it or shrink themselves to fit. Neither is good. But when most people talk about how “marriage takes work,” what many of us hear is “I’ve been fighting with my wife a lot lately.” So what kind of work do long-term relationships need, and where should you start? Below, I’ve collected a few lessons I’ve learned from over a decade of counseling couples. It is possible to communicate better, stay in touch with your passion for each other, and thrive alone and together. Here’s how.
Many women are socialized to not speak directly and to assume we won’t be listened to or taken seriously. This means that we often open discussions about our thoughts with “I feel like,” a deflecting phrase that softens whatever we actually want to say and makes it more challenging for others to disagree.
“I feel like” is just a wishy-washy way to say “I think.” What would happen if you started to say what you thought directly?
Construct Useful “I Statements”
Using “I feel like” is bad, but talking about how you feel is good. Using “I statements” is a way to do so from the place of knowing that no one else can make you feel a certain way, rather than from a place of blaming someone else for your feelings.
For instance, your partner leaves half-drunk coffee cups all over the house. Saying “I feel annoyed that you leave your half-drunk coffee cups all over the house” creates a cause-and-effect between their actions and your feelings, doesn’t give them a chance to respond, doesn’t show why you feel annoyed really, and doesn’t lead to a productive conversation. Instead, use this I-statement template when wanting to express yourself:
“I feel _____________ [list of feeling words here] about __________________________ [statement of objective observation] because I ______________________________.”
Using this template, you might say, “When you leave your coffee cup on the counter, I feel anxious about the coffee cups around the house because I often don’t realize they’re there and knock them over, and because we agreed to keep the house tidy. I appreciate that you work from home and you didn’t put that coffee cup there on purpose, can we come to a happy medium?”
Do you see the difference? In the template example, you take responsibility for your feelings, create space for negotiation, and allow your partner to respond instead of being attacked.
Reconfirm Your Relationship Expectations
Being clear about your mutual expectations for your relationship is an ongoing process. For instance, how do you approach alone time? Together time? Future goals? Family or social events? What do you want the life you share to look like?
Expectations change over time, so it’s important to keep the conversation going. For instance, if you’re approaching your first set of holidays together ever, you might decide together that it’s important for you to each do your own thing. If you’re approaching your first set of holidays together after getting married, you might feel differently. You also might not. It’s important to talk about your expectations well in advance to look at where you align and where you both have to compromise.
Practice Active Listening
Connection and understanding require active listening. Start by putting your phone away, face down. Turn towards your partner. Lean in as they speak. Make eye contact. When appropriate, “mirror” to show you’re listening – and to make sure you’re following – by repeating what they just said. Don’t interrupt.
Jack Rosenblum, the co-author of Five Secrets of Marriage from the Heart, suggests that making your partner feel understood may require sitting on your hands, meaning just listening rather than problem-solving, interrupting, or talking for them. Give them the space to share without judgment or running commentary.
Schedule Time Together
If you don’t make time, you can never have time. Happy couples share interests or hobbies and enjoy connecting in a positive space. “Early on in a relationship couples talk as friends, they do fun things; But, over time, those ways of connecting change,” Dr. Howard Markham, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage, notes. Keep your relationship fresh by continuing to connect with each other over shared activities that have a sense of excitement. Going for a walk, hike, or bike ride; attending a community event; or crossing something off your bucket lists can all help to enliven a relationship strangled by stress.
Schedule Sexual Time Together
If you want sex to continue to be part of your relationship over time, act like it. Talk about it, leave space for it, and put it on your calendar, regularly.
There’s an idea that sex is supposed to be spontaneous and that something is wrong if it isn’t. Spontaneous sex can be fun, but you can’t be spontaneous if you don’t give yourselves the chance. Scheduling sex – whether you use that time to mutually masturbate, have strap-on sex for hours, or just shower together and go to bed early – is the best way to make sure you continue to have a sex life in a long-term relationship.
Don’t forget to schedule some solo sex time, too. Your sexual and erotic self exists as part of you, not as part of your relationship.
Stop Doing Everything Together
Always being with your partner blocks real connection with your partner.
“While love and desire relate, they also conflict. Love thrives in an atmosphere of reciprocity, protection, and congruence. Desire is more selfish. In fact, at times, the very elements that nurture love: comfort, stability, safety, for example, can extinguish desire. Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive,” writes renowned psychologist Esther Perel in the Huffington Post. Finding the balance between them is one of the beautiful challenges of long-term relationships, as Perel discusses in her classic Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.
Maintaining some emotional and physical distance from each other can inject a little mystery and curiosity, which help you stay close in the long run. That distance also creates room for personal growth – another key part of a successful long-term relationship.
Ask for What You Want
If you want something, ask for it. Asking for what you want from your partner is the only way to get it. For instance, if you feel unappreciated and want your partner to show you that they care using one of your love languages, sitting back and waiting will not work; you have to share how you’re feeling and ask for what you want.
Let’s say you feel disconnected from your partner and quality time is your love language, but you’re the one who makes plans. Rather than waiting endlessly and resentfully for your partner to surprise you with a night out, say, “I’m feeling disconnected from you lately, and I’d like to spend some one-on-one time together. I’ve also noticed that when we have dates I usually plan them. Can you plan a date night for us?”
If you make a request and weeks have gone by with no action, address the topic again in a direct manner. You might say, “Hey so, I mentioned how I would love it if you would plan a date and I was wondering if you’ve thought about it.”
I’ve worked with many people who say they don’t like to request what they want because they want it to come from their partner on their own. The truth is we are not mind readers and you are more likely to get your needs met by making requests versus keeping a silent grudge.