When things break, different sides are exposed in different lights. It can be painful, but insightful. Relationship struggles aren’t necessarily a sign that things are doomed, but instead an invitation to learn more about yourself, your partner, and love. They can deepen your level of intimacy because they force you to pay attention to your relationship, to work for it, and to learn skills that build it. In this way, your best times can closely follow your worst times, so when you’re faced with a difficulty, turn toward it, not away from it. Ask it what it has come to teach you and allow it to transform you.
Below are 13 ways to improve you marriage (some of these behaviors were inspired by Mort Fertel’s Marriage Fitness System — this dude knows what he’s talkin’ about.)
1. Hang out.
When you’re angry or hurt, you want to pull away, but that only creates distance. To heal, you must connect. Ignore the dirty dishes and teach your children to sleep more independently, or do whatever you have to do to prioritize time with your spouse.
2. Don’t talk about your problems.
Of course, there’s a place for addressing issues, but first connect. Talk for the sake of talking. Hang out for the sake of hanging. Living in your issues doesn’t get you out of them; building relationship skills that foster love and closeness does.
3. Give quality attention.
Before a couple lives together, they purposely spend time together by visiting each other and going on dates. Once couples live together, they’re more likely to take their togetherness for granted and run through the motions of the day without planning time to connect. For a certain amount of time each day, close your computers, put your phones away, and watch how much more there is to learn about each other, and how good it feels to value each other’s company without distractions or other obligations. There is literally nothing more important to do than nurture your relationship.
4. Share in each other’s worlds.
My husband and I like to cuddle, share a laptop, and look at houses or laugh together while browsing memes. We can easily zone out on our own computers, and although that’s nice too, sharing one is surprisingly fun and bonding.
5. Look at each other.
Like right through each other’s eyes and into each other’s souls. It sounds weird, I know, but it is a powerful way to communicate without any words at all. It can feel exposing, yet intensely intimate. It’s called soul gazing — check it out.
6. Be affectionate.
Love is a verb, and by acting it, you feel it. Hold hands. Kiss. Have sex — not only the quick parent-of-young-children kind, but the slow I-really-love-you kind too.
7. Know that life is better together.
If you’re going through a rough patch in your marriage, you might be faced with the thought of living life without your partner. These thoughts can put in perspective your tendency to take each other for granted, and actually help you appreciate each other more. If it’s closeness you desire, you might not need to find it somewhere else, but can cultivate it in your current relationship.
8. Remember that your partner is a catch.
Look at him with fresh eyes. Remember why you fell in love in the first place.
9. Be a team.
Dividing and conquering is normal when running a family and a home, and although that’s efficient, it doesn’t help us understand each other’s experiences or feel connected. If you’re struggling, stay in each other’s company more. Realize how much more enjoyable the chores are when done together. My husband and I play rock-paper-scissors for who does the next diaper change, and I convince him to accompany me on errands. Maybe it creates more work for him, but the happiness his efforts give me makes it worth it for him.
10. Consider each other.
Rather than get mad when my husband needs alone time after work, I remind myself to consider the pressures he feels during the day and understand his needs better. He considers my feminine need for little tokens of love, and he leaves me notes to discover around the house. By constantly trying to understand each other’s feelings and experiences, we get feel slighted by each other less often.
11. Believe in each other’s love.
As a woman, I find that I go through sensitive periods of feeling underappreciated and overworked. I have a need to be held and nurtured, and if my husband’s not doing this for me, I assume he doesn’t love me enough. When we believe in each other’s love, we trust that our imperfections and moods have nothing to do with our love for each other. (This is the same as not taking anything personally.)
12. Show your spouse how to make you happy.
Before, I would have grumbled to myself about him not taking the trash out or helping me put the kids to bed. But with assurance of his love and good intentions, I’ve learned how to ask for what I want without nagging. Rather than saying, “You never help me!” I started saying, “Babe, will you take the trash out?” I’m happy when I get the help I need, and he’s happy to know how to make me happy.
13. Honor yourself and your spouse.
Share your moment-to-moment truth. My husband might say, “I want to sleep in tomorrow.” Rather than being passive and appeasing or confrontational, I learned to be honest (with myself and him). Now I say something like, “I want you to get the sleep you need, but I hate feeling alone with the baby all morning.” Then we make agreements that work for both of us. Honesty always leads to feeling connected and understood.
Rumi, a 13th-century poet wrote, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I read this quote over and over again throughout difficult parts of my life to remind myself that even when struggle is deep and painful, it’s transformative and purposeful. Sometimes things fall apart just to be rebuilt again, better and stronger.