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How can we keep the spark in our marriage?

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Keeping love and romance alive in a marriage doesn't require frequent vacations or weekend getaways. Couples who still feel the glow in their marriage are those who have nurtured the friendship that is the basis of all happy marriages.

According to John Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” the determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. So, he concludes, men and women come from the same planet after all.

Consider these tips for strengthening the marital friendship.

· Stay in touch with each other. Be aware of daily events in each other's lives. Be aware of how your spouse thinks and feels. Set aside a regular time each day to talk about the simple things of the day, whether it’s visiting on the phone or spending 15 minutes each evening holding hands and talking.

· Show appreciation. One of the greatest needs we have is to feel appreciated. Most of us do well at saying thanks or giving compliments for the obvious things. To be truly appreciative, however, we need to notice the less obvious things. Learn to say thanks for the invisible work (things that only get noticed when they don't get done) such as expressing appreciation for a drawer full of clean clothes or a car that is well maintained. Tell your spouse you are grateful for her or him. After practice, you will develop the appreciation habit.

· Show kindness. Doing little things for each other is simple, yet it is often overlooked. It is especially hard to be kind when a spouse has been critical or unkind toward us. It is human nature to be less kind in return. But kindness is catching. Your kind words and actions can bring out kindness in your spouse. Try doing simple, unselfish things for your spouse such as listening with patience, helping with a task when he or she is busy, avoiding an angry reply or apologizing for something you said. Leave a love note on your spouse's pillow or in a lunch sack, send a card in the mail or give a small gift for no special occasion.

· Be understanding. When a spouse is feeling down or upset, we can listen and offer support rather than minimizing feelings or offering advice about what he or she should do. Listen with full attention. Give a simple acknowledgement of your spouse's feelings with an “Oh” or “I see.” Check to see if you’ve understood by saying such things as “You're feeling upset because ...? Is that right?” Show understanding with comments such as “I didn't know that's how you felt...” or “That must have been awful or exciting/great/disappointing.”

· Learn your spouse's love language. One language is telling our spouse we love them. Another is showing them by our actions. Most people like to be told and shown in different ways at different times. Find out which means the most to your spouse.

· Make time for fun. Having fun together is essential to keeping the spark in a marriage. With the many things vying for our time, it often takes planning. Try new things and shake up the familiar patterns. Make a list of activities you'd like to do. Trade lists with your spouse. Choose one thing from your spouse's list and have your spouse choose one from yours. Schedule the activities and make them a priority.

· Laugh. When you first dated, you probably laughed together a lot. You can still add humor to life each day. Humor can help a marriage over the rough spots. Share jokes or funny stories. Rent a funny movie and watch it together. Make each other laugh like you did when you were dating.

· Balance being a parent with being a partner. Parenthood can bring special demands and challenges to the marriage including fatigue, increased time demands, increased financial pressures, differing ideas about how to parent, unequal involvement in parenting and unequal division of household labor. For wives especially, this can result in feeling unappreciated and resentful, and most wives report a decline in their marital happiness after becoming mothers. But one recent study found that about 33 percent of women experienced an increase in marital satisfaction upon becoming a mother. This was not due to having an easy baby, working or not working, nursing or bottle-feeding — it was based on whether the husband became a true partner in parenting. For a marriage to continue to grow, a man must become a father as well as a husband.

To foster this, wives can recognize the father’s role and not exclude him from child care. Husbands can give their wives a break by coming home early from work when possible or couples can alternate childcare on Saturday mornings. Husbands can share the work. The wife often does the majority of the daily drudge work, which can leave her feeling resentful. When she feels the husband is doing his share, she is happier and couples report a more satisfying sex life. Two other factors are also important — whether the husband does his jobs without being nagged, and whether he is flexible enough to do some of his wife’s jobs if she can’t.

A solid marital friendship is a buffer against the problems that arise in marriage. No marriage will be totally free of differences, and setting out to fix everything that’s not perfect is an impossible task. Couples are happier when they focus on the good in their marriage and in their spouse. When the friendship is good, it is easier to do that. And when the friendship is solid and couples are happy in the marriage, differences and problems don’t seem to matter as much.

Posted on 16 Apr 2004

Tom Lee
Family & Consumer Science Program Leader & Department Head, Financial Management Specialist

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