Written by: Lindsey Rogers, LCPC
The chase begins. Intrigue. Uncertainty. Excitement. So many firsts come with getting to know each other. There’s risk and then the huge pay off of falling for someone as they fall in love with you. Ah, love. And then months and years go by. And that fire may become less of a spark and more of a slow burn or, in some cases, just a measly flicker. Sometimes long-term relationships start to feel more like unfriendly roommates than passionate lovers. We live in a time when it is easier to break-up or get divorced than it is to stay together. Being in a long-term monogamous relationship takes significant work. And this effort is markedly different than the preparation for a first date. The keys to making love last are more about communication, trust, and intimacy.
BUILD YOUR FIRE: CHANGE THINGS UP TO COMMUNICATE
If you haven’t watched the movie Up, you should. Wrapped up in a lighthearted Pixar cartoon adventure, the film demonstrates some of what goes on over the course of a long-term relationship. In a sweet, family-friendly way, the opening montage captures the ups and downs of a couple meeting each other, falling in love, marriage, sickness, and the eventual loss of a spouse. In real life, the struggle to actually stay together is a little more complicated than what is depicted in this children’s movie. However, what you can see from a few moments of a dialogue-free montage is that communication is key. The non-verbal communication between two cartoon characters exemplifies what can really happen—assumptions, miscommunication, frustration, and if we are lucky, just something to chuckle about later. But that’s the Disney version. In real life, when couples stop communicating, it often sends them down a rabbit hole of painful issues.
So if you haven’t had a deep conversation with your partner in a while or you are barely on speaking terms at this point, try to change it up. It may feel awkward at first; you may have to schedule time to talk, but put in some effort to increase the dialogue at home. Start with the easy questions: How was your day? Do you want to watch Veep together? Did you hear about [insert current event here]? Once you start acknowledging each other, you can dig a little deeper and eventually talk about the deeper stuff: Where is this relationship going? Are you happy? Should we have another child? But start with the basics and if you ask a question, actually listen to the answer. There is the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth because we need to listen twice as much as we speak. Maybe even ask a follow up question. Try to maintain eye contact and pay attention to body language and facial expressions. Hopefully your partner will also return the questions, ask for your take, and—voila!—communication starts to happen.
Of course, not everything is basic, mundane, non-emotionally charged discourse; stuff happens and we get upset. And we need to tell someone about being upset. Let’s say you worked all day and came home and your husband did not do the dishes or put the kids to bed and instead is engrossed in the Cubs game. You are pissed. Enter good communication, because here’s the thing: You can demonstrate how you feel (yell, curse, throw something) or you can communicate how you feel (“Hey Babe, how are the Cubbies doing? Oh good. Since they are ahead, could you please help me with XYZ; I’d really appreciate it! I’m feeling stressed about it.”). Demonstrating how upset you are may feel great in the short term but it has long-term consequences and probably will not convince your husband to start to help. If you want communication to improve, you may need to lead by example rather than waiting for something miraculous to happen. There has to be space to voice when you are not happy. But if you can approach it from a problem-solving perspective, it can be productive. Equally important is to notice what is going well and talk about that. Acknowledge and validate your partner and you will get the same in return.
Good communication happens when we are ready to have it. Surprises can happen, but in general a few factors need to be in place for a message to be conveyed and received. You can’t just throw a good meal together; you need some prep, the right ingredients, etc. Communication is similar. It may seem like a great idea to bring up something that is nagging at you late at night, like when your partner is just about to fall sound asleep: “Psst. Hey, Honey. Are you awake? I really want to talk about our finances.” Bad idea. Or when rushing to get out the door in the morning—not the time to broach the subject of a career change. You can’t avoid a discussion because you are waiting for the perfect time, but try your best to set aside time to talk when you can both be present and receptive (i.e., awake). Maybe that time is before bed once the kids are asleep and the Cubs game is over; maybe it’s during the commute together. Once you are able to get into the habit of carving out some time to communicate, a great thing to incorporate is a weekly check-in. It may sound awkward at first, but it can be immensely helpful to sit down once a week, look at each other, and take turns saying what went well for you, what you have struggled with/continue to struggle with, and what you appreciate that your partner did this week. You may be surprised what your partner says and the two of you will learn more about each other. And feel connected. And appreciated. And that’s ideal communication.
ADD KINDLING TO SUPPORT THE FLAMES: TRUST EACH OTHER
If communication is going well, trust will follow. Perhaps things have happened in the past and trust has been shaken or shattered. It is important to get some help with those ruptures. Couples therapy and/or individual therapy can be a huge asset in addressing trust issues. Oftentimes we can get so stuck with our feelings of hurt and betrayal that we can’t hear or understand our partners. Getting perspective from a non-judgmental third party like a trained mental health professional can be a huge benefit. If a couple can communicate where they are and what they are doing, trust can really build. There are no assumptions to make or secrets to have if you really know your partner and establish and continue to voice and agree on expectations for your relationship. Shared expectations are really important in a good, healthy relationship.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, time apart is integral to a positive partnership. Quality time is huge, as is communication, but we can’t expect our partners to satisfy every single need. Social media is rife with posts of engagement photos with captions like, “I can’t wait to marry my best friend.” Don’t get me wrong: Our partners often are or become our best friends. But we also need other friends, activity partners, coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances. It takes a village to keep us all sane and we cannot put pressure on each other to do and be everything for each other. Being life partners is a tall enough order. Make each other a priority, but make sure there is more to each of your lives than just your partnership. And then keep communicating because as we are engaging in other parts of our lives, we need to be able to trust each other.
KEEP THE SPARK BURNING: MAKE TIME FOR INTIMACY
So now you are chatting it up all the time and have a strong foundation of trust—your relationship is sounding pretty great! Back to the spark I was talking about in the beginning: intimacy. From Disney-ready pecks on the cheek to passionate sex, intimacy can really cover the whole spectrum of passion. And like all the aspects of a relationship, intimacy takes work and effort. Start by scheduling date nights, which will get you both in the mindset of having quality time together. Take time to relax and enjoy your time together. Do not have the expectation of mind-blowing sex; just try to feel connected to one another while your clothes are on. Reminisce about those earlier days and recall what has been good between the two of you. This is where you can dig up some of those feelings of passion. Start to see intimacy as a way to feel connected to your partner. It does not need to be perfect or knock your socks off—it’s about spending time together and demonstrating positive feelings towards each other. The more you make time for it and are intentional about intimacy, the more that intimacy will naturally grow.
Maybe there was that point in your life years ago when you were just consumed with the idea of being in a relationship and meeting someone. And then you did, and it was fiery and passionate and wonderful. You probably didn’t consider how much work goes into keeping that relationship going once you’ve found it. But by putting in effort to talk, trust, and love each other, relationships can be meaningful and long-lasting. And to have a partner to share in all of life’s adventures, well, that’s totally worth it.