When you walk down the aisle or move in together, you may feel like you have finally found your “happily ever after.” In the early stages of love, surges of brain chemicals and hormones make you feel euphoric and increase your feelings of attachment to your loved one. You are likely to idealize and see the best in your partner, perhaps minimizing their faults and ways in which you are incompatible. As the years go by, you may start to take each other for granted or get caught up in the routines of raising kids, working, or creating financial security. Brain chemicals settle and excitement may wane as dopamine (the pleasure and reward hormone) gets replaced with oxytocin. If this is happening to you, it’s time to take stock of your marriage to see if it needs a reboot.
How Marriages Lose Their Spark
Research shows clearly that marital satisfaction goes down with the birth of the first child and takes another dip with the birth of the second or third. Luckily, it bumps way back up again when kids leave for college, if you can make it that long! While life with kids is meaningful and filled with happy moments, raising kids is a lot of work. If both partners work or one works long hours and travels, or if family live far away, parents may not get a break. Even if you don’t have kids, to raise demanding work roles, health issues and family obligations can create stress and time scarcity.
It’s important to regularly take stock of your relationship and work on maintenance and repair. Houses are not the only things that require maintenance. People do too. If you ignore your partner’s needs for long periods, you’ll end up with a debit balance in the emotional bank account, which means that your partner’s goodwill and patience could dry up.
What you can do to improve your relationship:
Below are 5 things you can do right away to begin restoring connection and positive feeling. If problems continue despite these efforts, you may want to seek counseling.
(1) Acknowledge the problems & own your share
If you have been blaming your partner for all of the problems, it may be time to take a good hard look at yourself. How are you knowingly or unknowingly contributing to negative cycles? Has anger caused you to withdraw and ignore your partner’s attempts to connect with you physically or emotionally? Do you anger easily when you discuss conflictual topics? Is there an imbalance of duties such that your partner has to do way more than her fair share? Are you spending too much money on things your partner doesn’t consider important? Now’s the time to fess up, acknowledge how this contributed to the problems and make a commitment to change. Once you’ve done this, your partner is more likely to do the same.
(2) Make shared positive experiences a priority
If your interactions with your partner have been biased toward the mundane or negative, it may be time to inject some positivity and excitement back into your relationship. This may help you reconnect with the aspects of your partner that initially attracted you. Research shows that long-term happy couples engage in new experiences together that are novel, challenging or lead to new learning. So sign up for a ballroom dancing class or a meditation course, climb a rock wall together or go try out the Indian restaurant that opened down the street. If money is tight, take a camping trip, go on a hike, or cook a special meal together. Shared new activities can help stir things up so your brain can get out of its jaded mindset towards your partner.
(3) Notice and acknowledge what is most important to your partner
Many of my couples therapy clients claim that their partners never listen to them and don’t show interest when they talk about the events of the day. While it’s important to listen to your partner’s concerns and worries, research suggests it may be even more important to show interest in the things that make them happy and to celebrate their victories, large and small. When a partner doesn’t show interest in the special day you had with your kid or the great speech you gave at work, you begin to feel unimportant, unseen or unappreciated. This sows seeds of resentment and misunderstanding. Luckily, the cycle can be reversed if you begin to stay mindfully present and listen. If you have errands or work that can’t wait, schedule a time that day that you can be available.
(4) Communicate openly about physical intimacy
Many people find it difficult to talk about their sexual needs or to admit openly that they don’t desire sex as frequently as their partner does. Physical intimacy can be the glue that keeps couples together when they face problems in other areas. On the other hand, problems in sex may really be problems in intimacy with one or both partners withdrawing because they feel emotionally neglected or disrespected. Whatever the issue, it’s important to open the channels of communication. Talking about physical intimacy is itself an act of connection if it’s done in an open, loving, nonjudgmental way. Keep the conversation positive and focused on what you want, not on what you don’t want. Physical intimacy is an area of sensitivity and vulnerability for most of us, so tread carefully.