First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes happily ever after. End of story, right? Not quite.. While it’s true that couples relax a bit after they think they’ve nabbed the matrimonial Holy Grail, the reality is that they may also find themselves dumbfounded if their fairy-tale starts slipping away. “Many people think that marriage is about marrying the right person, so when things go wrong, they automatically go to the ‘Crap, I accidentally married the wrong person’ place,” says Alisa Bowman, author of Project: Happily Ever After.
“Although you do want to marry someone you are basically compatible with, marriage has a lot less to do with marrying the right person than it has to do with doing the right things with the person you married.” In other words, relationships are a constant work in progress. To keep the happy connection that made you say “I do” in the first place or maybe even create a newer-and-improved version, try out these 10 tips to rehab your romance.
1. Nurture yourself.
Marriage is about giving, but don’t make the mistake of giving too much. “To have a good marriage, you need to be a good you,” says Bowman. “Learn how to prioritize and put boundaries around activities that keep you healthy and whole—activities like rest, relaxation, fitness and time with friends.” In other words, remember that scheduling “me” time into your day is not selfish, it’s a necessity. It will strengthen your relationship because you’ll have a saner version of “you” to bring to the “us” equation.
2. Define your problems.
Spend some time looking at your relationship and figure out which parts work and which parts don’t. Bowman suggests that you take a moment to imagine a perfect day in your perfect relationship. What would this look like? How would you and your partner interact? Then create a plan of how you might get from point A (your current reality) to point B (that perfect day). Write it down if you need to, then start breaking the issues into bite-size pieces and tackling them one at a time. Before you know it, there will only be a few bite-size problems left.
3. Make a financial plan together.
Money is one of the biggest stressors in a marriage. Couples worry and argue about it constantly. If you find you and your spouse are starting to badger each other over the bottom line, it’s time to have a penny-pinching powwow. “We are all guilty of something economists call ‘passive decision-making,’ which just means defaulting to the easy option,” says Jenny Anderson, coauthor of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes.
“Couples need to make an active plan about how they will manage their money: Combine it? Separate it? Create a joint account and keep some separate? Whatever the decision, both people have to be part of the decision to do it and then figure out what needs to be done to keep the system humming.”
4. Use the three-sentence rule.
When you need to ask your partner for something that could be misconstrued as nagging, keep the request at three sentences—max. “The art of being assertive without coming off as aggressive lies in being succinct and using a warm tone of voice and body language,” says Bowman. “When you keep your requests to three sentences or fewer, it’s almost impossible to blame, use sarcasm or use put-downs.”
It’s also a lot more likely that you’ll get your point across without losing your spouse’s attention. Make your request with a smile. Be sincere and encouraging. You might even rest your hand on his thigh as you say, “Honey, the house is a mess and I am exhausted. Could you help me clean this place up? I could really use your help.”
5. Take your fighting gloves off.
Don’t duke it out. Instead, consider taking a time-out. “There’s a concept called ‘loss aversion’ in economics, which simply means we really hate to lose. And when we think we are losing, we fight like there is no tomorrow to try to win,” says Anderson. “It happens when couples talk about hot-button issues like sex, housework, money or the kids. If either person thinks he or she is losing, he or she will ratchet up the stakes and escalate the issue.” The next time you see a spousal spat going to a not-so-happy place, take a break and revisit the subject when neither one of you feels overwhelmed by the topic.
6. Just do it.
Yes, by “do it” we mean have sex. Intimacy is an important part of a vital relationship, and one of the first areas to suffer if feelings are floundering. But sexual encounters can also be one of the quickest ways to reconnect and rekindle with your partner. “Of the many forms of couple intimacy—a smile across a room, a kiss, a touch—sex has the potential to be the most powerful positive physical experience most of us enjoy,” says Joel D. Block, PhD, coauthor of Sex Comes First: 15 Ways to Save Your Relationship…Without Leaving Your Bedroom. “This is especially true if sex results in emotional fulfillment, better communication, security and reassurance.”
7. Burn your grudges.
It’s time to set some bad memories on fire. Literally. Sometimes hanging on to those “Do you remember the time you did such and such?” moments are the things that lead to relationship sabotage. Instead of carrying grudges around forever, torch them. “Write them all down on a piece of paper. Then set a timer for a certain amount of time. It might be 10 minutes. It might be 30. It might be the whole day.
The point is: Give yourself as long as you need to really wallow in the misery of these grudges. Savor them. Get angry about them. Mutter about them. Do whatever you need to do to get sick and tired of them,” says Bowman. “Once you are done, say, ‘I will not think about these anymore. These grudges have lost their usefulness.'” Then take a match and burn them.
8. Don’t be overly confident.
Overconfidence can lead to complacency, which is not good for any relationship. According to Anderson, in a survey published in August 1993 in the journal Law and Human Behavior, couples who had recently applied for a marriage license were asked to estimate the average rate of divorce. Almost uniformly, they accurately predicted about 50 percent. Then they were asked to estimate the chances that they would get divorced.
They answered zero percent. The problem with this statistic is that, if there is no perceived risk of failure, no “work” is put into maintaining the relationship—until it’s suddenly faltering. Don’t let yourself gloss over the little things. Don’t forget to make an effort to keep your romance alive. Don’t find yourself in a situation where you realize that you could have done more…when it’s already too late.
9. Write your spouse’s eulogy.
This one isn’t as macabre as it sounds. It’s more of an exercise in appreciation. Bowman suggests that you work on it a little at a time as a way to notice what your spouse does right (since these are the things you’d likely eulogize him with, not the negatives). “Think back over the years you’ve known this man. When did he make you laugh? When did he make you cry tears of joy? When did he surprise you? When did he feed the cat because the smell of cat food makes you want to hurl? Put it in the eulogy,” says Bowman. “The funeral fantasy will help you remember to appreciate your spouse.”
10. Remind yourself you have a choice to stay married.
Many people stay in troubled marriages because they believe they have no other choice. “They think that they are stuck, and they blame this sensation of being stuck on their spouse. But if you are stuck, it’s your fault and not your spouse’s,” says Bowman. That fact is, “you are not stuck; you have choices. Three of them: Do nothing and remain miserable; face your fears and try to save your marriage; ask for a divorce.” Choose to either be married or not. Make a choice. And wake up every morning and make that choice again. The surest path to happiness is knowing that you are not a helpless damsel in distress, but rather a woman who can make her own decisions. You have the choice to live happily ever after.