Keeping Romance Alive in Marriage
By Louis McBurney
Recently, my wife, Melissa, and I were going through our wedding album. As we sat in front of the fireplace and looked at the photos of ourselves as 23-year-olds, we caught our breath.
Who are those kids? we wondered. And what on earth were they doing?
We spent the next hour going through the wedding photos with lots of laughs and pleasant memories. When we were done, we felt glad that after 41 years we're still together to share such a moment. We're keenly aware of how unusual that's getting to be.
Melissa and I work with couples, many of whom have trouble remembering what brought them together and what happened to their joy. How did the magic go out of the romance? How do we get it back?
A different dance
So where do we go from here? In our work, Melissa and I usually see couples who are very aware of their miserably ineffective relationship. Each can describe in accurate detail the "dance" they do. She says, "Why are you late this time?" (not really a question). He replies, "What does it matter to you?" (also not a question). Their defensive attacks and counterattacks continue until one leaves. The script is well rehearsed and the outcome sadly predictable: detachment and loneliness.
Yet the old dance doesn't have to continue. Either person can change it by learning a new step. Here are seven steps to help you begin again, to renegotiate your marital contract if it needs some revisions.
1. Commit to change. This may be the hardest part when you're both discouraged and about ready to throw in the towel. Take some time to look at the consequences. While separation and divorce might provide initial relief, reality will eventually settle in and the complications will overcome the relief. Stop to count those costs: financial, emotional, relational, even parental—the scar it leaves on your children is probably the highest cost of all. Leaving the relationship is really just an exchange of problems—many times, bigger ones. But choosing to stay and committing to change because of the good you've experienced together and what you've invested in each other's lives will likely bring rewards to your marriage.
2. Identify hurts, but don't blame. Individually, list events or patterns that have created hurt for you and how you interpreted them. For instance, we knew one husband who remembered vividly his bride's tears about leaving her mother as they drove away from the church on their wedding day. He believed she was enmeshed with her mother and that he'd made a fatal error. On the other hand, she remembered being totally fatigued and emotionally exhausted for a couple of days after the wedding circus, but had no recollection of wanting to go back home to Mom. Yet that event created resentment in the young man that set a negative tone from the beginning. Our marital histories are laced with similar experiences. We're all guilty of feeling hurt because we've interpreted an event in the worst possible way, such as, I'm not loved or I married a monster. When you can share these not to establish blame but to find understanding, they take on a different tone. Forgiveness can follow.
3. Trace the roots. Sometimes those painful patterns become more understandable when you discover their childhood roots. Look at your families of origin objectively. When you quit being defensive, you'll probably laugh at the unique, peculiar styles you've always accepted as the way life should be lived, just because you grew up that way. These myths die hard and set you up for confusion and discomfort. Gender roles, decision making, conflict management, parenting styles, religious beliefs, celebration rituals, and dealing with illness are just a few that may create disappointment.
Melissa and I began to discover these myths early in our marriage. Just to name a few: I rearranged her kitchen the first week in our first apartment because she didn't have things in the "right" places. (Boy, did I learn quickly!) Then Christmas came and she expected to open presents on Christmas morning. (Can you believe that?) The thing about these "myths" is that they make such a powerful emotional impact, but don't actually matter one iota. Let go of them—have a good laugh as you see how foolish it's been for you to let those differences rob you of enjoyment.
4. Define your current needs and expectations. Where are you today as individuals? Yes, you've both changed since the wedding, but take a fresh look at what you'd like to experience together starting now. Chances are you've tried to tell each other these things off and on for some time. It's amazing how resistant we can be to really hearing each other.
Frequently, Melissa and I hear couples talk about their needs for being accepted, feeling loved in a certain language, having a comfortable space, being listened to rather than ignored or put down, achieving mutual sexual satisfaction, and allowing each other's differences about life's little never-minds such as toilet seats and clutter. The bottom line is often the desire to feel safe, cherished, and respected.
5. Design new behavior. Changing old scripts is a challenge, but once you understand the "whys" of the old dances, it's easier to find different, more effective steps. Talk together about some behaviors you'd like to see in your relationship, and then pick out one or two to work on first. They might be as simple as putting the milk back in the refrigerator or dirty dishes in the sink. Start small; you don't have to solve all the world's problems—much less your own—in the first week. Some victories in the small things will encourage you in the bigger ones. Remember to give each other grace. Old patterns don't disappear instantly. You've had a lifetime of honing those to perfection. Don't be surprised or too disappointed when they persist.
6. Decide to be accountable. You can help each other change primarily by praising each other. Reinforcing the new, preferred behaviors by frequent "at-a-boys" or "way-to-go's" is far more effective than pointing out the failures! If you're really brave, you may risk asking your mate to remind you if you slip. That can be dangerous, however, particularly if you've been firing darts of criticism as part of your old warfare. An occasional truce table discussion of how you're feeling about the process can help to reaffirm the commitment. So can calling in some outside help with a friend or a professional counselor.
7. Celebrate your new relationship. As you begin to see success in your renegotiated, all-new-and-improved marriage, have some high fives. Set some attainable goals and go out for dinner to rejoice in the change. You've done a great thing. Don't minimize the smallest victory.
By taking these steps, you're investing in a future of intimacy and enjoyment that will affect your family for generations—and bring you laughter and smiles when you're looking at your wedding book on some far distant night in front of the fire.