In order to rekindle the old spark in a relationship, life coach Tal Fagin suggests putting all those “other responsibilities” aside once in a while and making your relationship a priority.
My marriage has gone a little stale, and I am hoping you can help me freshen things up a bit. I have no worries about impending divorce—both my wife and I are loyal and committed to one another and our family. Still, I feel as if we have slipped into a comfort rut. The routine rules. Children, work and other responsibilities always come first, leaving little time for anything else. I am not naive enough to expect butterflies after all these years of marriage. I know we are long past the stage of animal lust—dammit! I do believe we can do better, though. Is there anything you might suggest to help us improve our relationship, and maybe even rekindle the old spark.
It sounds like you have a nice, stable marriage that could benefit from a little attention and focus. The early “in love” feeling that often leads to marriage is a thrill, and is part of our biology. That fluttery, jittery, I-can’t-eat-sleep-work-or-think-about-anything-but-you phase of a relationship plays a crucial evolutionary role. It makes us want to mate, and ensures our survival.
It is also, sadly, short-lived.
Biologically, the euphoria of early love may not be meant to last—if it did, no one would ever get anything done—but your hope is not misguided. It may even be your greatest ally in this effort, because if you truly want to get out of that “comfort rut,” it will take effort.
Even the hottest blaze will go to ash without tending and care.
Sustaining heat in a long-term relationship requires us to balance two opposing sets of fundamental human needs. Esther Perel, rock-star relationship therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, puts it something like this: On one hand, is our need for security, predictability, safety, dependability, reliability and permanence—all anchoring, grounding experiences. On the other hand is our equally strong need for adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, surprise and even danger—all the fun, sexy stuff.
Can one marriage have it all? Is “happily ever after” ever really possible? I say, yes and yes!
Your mission, Hopeful, should you choose to accept it, is to put all those “other responsibilities” aside once in a while and make your relationship a priority. Anything you can do to inject novelty, mystery, laughter, adventure or surprise into your life and marriage will help.
Beyond that, I invite you to try the following:
Get Inspired. Before you devise any grand plans or strategies for stoking the marital flame, go deeper. Why do you want to “freshen” up the marriage? Why do you want to improve your relationship or rekindle the old spark? These may seem like ridiculous questions with obvious answers, but humor me.
What is your ideal vision for your marriage? What do you need or want that you are you currently missing? What are you looking to feel?
Now, from that place, I invite you to get motivated and inspired. What can you do differently to bring more of that into your marriage?
Clear the Air. Begin a new dialogue. Express your love, devotion and desires to your wife. Let her know how you feel, and ask her to do the same. Keep the lines of communication open and inviting, as opposed to agenda-driven or demanding. Drop your defenses and encourage her to do the same. Learn to truly listen to one another, to approach each other with care and interest, but also with curiosity, warmth and playfulness.
More on Novelty. One of the most common excuses people give for straying from a marriage is that the affair “made them feel alive again.” Often, it is not the spouse that is the problem, but the drudgery and routine that makes us feel dead inside. Perhaps you feel there should be more to life than the same old dull routine? Go ahead—add more. Shake things up. Any new activity or change of scenery—dance lessons, bungee jumping, travel or bedroom antics—can help you feel renewed and refreshed, minus the pain of infidelity. Tackling new challenges together as a couple can be invigorating, providing opportunities to bond and deepen your connection. You might even learn something new about one another, or come to see each other in surprising new lights.
Maintain Mystery. Some couples do absolutely everything together—and in front of one another—but total familiarity is not always sexy or attractive. Passionate couples balance their need to feel totally comfortable with each other, with the competing need to be desirable—and desire comes from wanting something you don’t already have. This is where sharing less and maintaining a little allure and mystery can help.
Get Laughing. Try doing things that make you laugh together—whether checking out a comedy act or making fools of yourselves at karaoke. Fun and laughter are great antidotes to the heaviness of responsibility, and will likely help you feel less burdened and more connected, less shackled and more vital.
Reminisce Together. Revisit your earlier younger days, through stories or old photos. Recall carefree, joyful, more gaga times, relive them together and see where it leads.
Small Gestures and Happy Surprises. Find ways to show one another you care. Extravagant gifts are great, but what about surprising her with a single flower or her favorite meal at the end of a long day? Sometimes it’s the smallest things, like a steaming cup of tea waiting on the table first thing in the morning, that feel like love and care.
A Lighter Touch. Remember holding hands? Gently caressing her hair? Remember kissing? Just. Plain. KISSING! Many married couples neglect the simpler forms of intimacy. All too often, the question “how often are you having sex?” becomes a litmus test for the closeness of a couple or the strength of a marriage. I say, there is too much emphasis on that. Do you exchange a good morning kiss before you launch into the business of the day? Do you snuggle while watching TV, or before drifting off to sleep? Touching releases oxytocin, which can promote feelings of devotion, trust and bonding, while also decreasing cortisol, a stress hormone. Increased closeness, decreased stress. Who doesn’t need a little of that?
Delegate. Responsibility is a killjoy. It makes us feel harried and stressed, burdened and tense. It squelches our desire, drains our energy and leaves no room for creativity or romance. So. What might you or your wife be able to delegate to others, or just bag altogether, in favor of spending more time wining and dining, or otherwise loving one another? If the children’s needs always come first, is there anyone who can help? If you argue over chores, is there someone else who might take them on to eliminate that source of tension?
Delegate Some More. Modern marriage poses unique challenges, as compared to the “till death do us part” promise of previous generations. First of all, we live a lot longer. Beyond that, we put tremendous pressure on our marriages to meet all of our needs. We want our spouse to be our best friend, a devoted parent, our staunchest supporter, handy around the house and an inspired lover to boot. Excluding cheating, who else might you might rely on to fill some of your needs? Might you take some of the pressure off one another, find other healthy ways to fill yourselves up, then come together feeling confident and assured, as opposed to needy and grasping?
Forget Spontaneity. One stellar tip from Perel’s research: Give up on “the myth of spontaneity.” Urges don’t erupt while you are folding the laundry. Marital sex is pre-meditated. It is willful, intentional, and often planned. The same goes for other forms of affection and intimacy. You must make the effort.
Pay Attention and Listen. Love means paying attention. This is related to the other forms of effort and focus we’ve been discussing, but different. Sometimes, the most potent way to love someone is to listen to them. True listening occurs when we put aside our own attitudes, perspective or agenda, not to mention our devices, and really allow ourselves to hear what the other person is saying.
Speaking of listening…
Drop Your Defenses. We humans have a built-in negativity bias. We constantly scan our environment for signs of trouble or danger as part of our survival instinct. This plays out in marriages all the time. Our fear of loss and rejection, whether conscious or not, often puts us in a defensive posture visa vis our spouse. We interpret their sighs, huffs or bad moods—any signal of displeasure—as personal affronts. Our defenses get triggered, and we forget to simply listen or extend compassion. Next time your wife seems stressed or irritated, instead of taking it personally or thinking thoughts like “she doesn’t appreciate me”—which inevitably lead to distance, loneliness or anger—try widening your perspective. Maybe she just had a bad day. Maybe she needs some space, or a hug, or a caring gesture. True connection requires vulnerability and a willingness to get hurt.
Learn to Speak Each Other’s Language. Imagine if you spoke French and your wife spoke Mandarin. You could say Je t’aime all day long, but you would not be understood. If you really wanted her to know you loved her, you’d have to learn to say it in her language. This is the idea behind a little book called The Five Love Languages – The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman. I have recommended it to every client seeking to improve their relationship, and I am recommending it to you now. The book posits the idea that there are 5 love languages—Physical Touch, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts and Quality Time—and explains how each of us speaks a different emotional language. In my practice, couples rarely seem to speak the same language, which leads to all manner of frustration, resentment and disconnection. Learning to identify one another’s love language, and then expressing love accordingly, will improve communication, enhance connection, deepen your bond and generally improve your marriage. Reading it together could even be your first novel act!
Hopeful, I wish you and your wife all the best. I can already see the two of you trying new adventures—laughing and loving, drinking Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain.
Don’t forget to send me a postcard!
All my best,