January is a time of renewal, to start again; to pause and take stock of your life over the past year, and set your intentions for the next. The top 10 New Year’s resolutions, according to a study published in the University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology, are:
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Spend less, save more
- Enjoy life to the fullest
- Stay fit and healthy
- Learn something exciting
- Quit smoking
- Help others in their dreams
- Fall in love
- Spend more time with family
You might or might not have noticed that the list does not include anything about strengthening marriage or committed relationships. (I’m assuming that “falling in love” means “with someone new.”)
Does this reflect where we rank the importance of our relationships? Maybe not intentionally, but insidiously. Having counseled thousands of couples over 30 years, my husband Bob and I commonly find that making time for a couple’s relationship falls to the bottom of the priority list. That is, until couples notice they have drifted apart, an affair is discovered, or conflict escalates to a level of crisis. A study by Notarius and Buongiorno, cited by Dr. John Gottman, found that the average couple waits six years from the time problems develop to seek counseling.
I’ve thought long and hard about why this happens; why, after we promise to love and cherish for a lifetime, many of us take our partners and marriages for granted. Is it because we aren’t aware that lasting relationships require feeding and nurturing over the years? That’s likely part of the answer.
In our society, marriage is often viewed more as an event than a process that necessitates effort. Falling in love doesn’t take much effort; we are driven by oxytocin and the powerful feelings of honeymoon attraction. Planning a wedding requires effort and results in an event—the wedding day. From that day forward, we tend to celebrate other events once a year—mainly anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and birthdays.
In our practice, we view marriage as the creation of a “life form.” When couples come to us for counseling, we describe their relationship as a living, breathing, but invisible entity.
But there are no conventional norms or models for sustaining or growing the relationship. There are no societal rituals that reinforce the “work” required by a couple to develop their communication skills, manage conflict productively, deepen emotional and sexual connection, or feed and nurture the bond of commitment.
In our practice, we view marriage as the creation of a “life form.” When couples come to us for counseling, we describe their relationship as a living, breathing, but invisible entity. Though we can’t touch it or see it, the energy of the relationship is palpable. When couples walk into our office, their relationship walks in with them. We feel it and sense whether it’s been a smooth week or one fraught with conflict.
All “life forms,” including relationships, need nurturance, lest they wither or self-destruct. Your relationship will only grow stronger and healthier if you put knowledge, effort, time, and love into it, as you do with yourself and your children. The new year is a great time to reflect on ways to renew, revitalize, and grow your relationship, and to focus on the process that will sustain and nurture your bond for a lifetime.
Here are worthwhile 10 New Year’s resolutions for your relationship:
- Communicate authentically. Talk about the strengths of your relationship. Honestly express resentments you have been holding on to in a way that allows your partner to hear them. Instead of avoiding conflict, create a constructive way to engage and resolve it as a team. Read Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work together and discuss how you can improve your communication.
- Create “sacred time.” Make your relationship a priority. Block out time. When our kids were young, we created “sacred time”—lunch once a week on Fridays. We committed to keep this date unless someone was in the hospital. We joked that it was the only regular time we had when there were no kids around and we were both awake. If we hadn’t had enough time to communicate during the week, we knew we could count on Fridays.
- Create daily “love habits.” Love habits are small gestures that feed the connection and give you a smile. Kiss each other every time you leave and every time you come home. Call each other or text love messages during the day. Cuddle every night before bed. We do “10-second hugs” at least twice a day. When I worked in our satellite office, Bob left me love notes on yellow stickies every week. I kept them all.
- Try new things together. New experiences and hobbies are stimulating and build connection. Try ice skating, skiing, sailing, a new museum, painting, a dance class. Take a day trip. Be creative—it may provide a spark in the relationship and create a new memory together.
- Express gratitude. Bob and I thank each other for the things we are “supposed to do.” When he does the laundry or I go food shopping; when he cleans up the counter or empties the trash; when I empty the dishwasher, we always say thanks. Some people think this is unnecessary, but noticing the little things and expressing words of appreciation can mean a lot.
- Plan regular dates. It’s easy to put everything else before the relationship. We often hear, “There’s not enough time/money/energy,” or, “We don’t have a babysitter.” There are many excuses. However, if you don’t carve out time for just the two of you, the relationship may wither. It’s a reminder of your identity as a couple.
- Make time for sex. Don’t neglect your erotic relationship. Passion tends to happen by itself only in the beginning, when it’s new and mysterious. In a long-term relationship, you have to create passion. Have sex dates, read books about sex, try something new, get sex toys. Open your mind and make this a time to have fun and play.
- Plan time away. When our kids were young, we planned an overnight at a bed-and-breakfast several times a year. Having 24 hours away was like a little oasis. The benefits were tremendous: it was easy to find child care for one night; they didn’t miss us too much; we didn’t feel guilty leaving for one night; one night away didn’t break the bank; packing was a snap; and 24 hours away felt like a week. It also gave us something to look forward to.
- Laugh together. When life gets serious, we can forget to have fun. Whether it’s a funny movie, a comedy club, or playing a game, be silly and do something that will make you laugh.
- Do the little things. Ask each other, “What are the little things that make you feel loved?” Every afternoon, either Bob or I go out to get coffee for the two of us. It’s our ritual and a great way to pause and connect in the middle of the workday. It really is the little acts of love in our daily lives that make the biggest difference.
Take this article and share it with your partner. Start by writing down the resolutions you want to make. Prioritize them and do one or two until they become habitual. Then, move on to the next one. Talk about being accountable to each other since it’s easy to not follow through. Agree to check in with each other once a week to review your progress.
Creating your own process and model to grow, nurture, and strengthen your relationship may breathe new life into your marriage and set you on a path to being together for a lifetime.
Happy New Year, and here’s to your relationship!
- Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. (1999). The marriage survival kit. In R. Berger & M.T. Hannah (Eds.), Preventive approaches in couples therapy (pp. 304–330). Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/Mazel.
- Notarius C., & Buongiorno, J. (1992). Wait time until professional treatment in marital therapy. Washington D.C: Unpublished paper, Catholic University of America.
- University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology.(2015, December 27). New Year’s Resolution Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/