You can have a great long-term love, but you have to stop being terrible to each other.
Show me a couple that’s been together longer than ten years and I’ll show you a couple that’s had hard times. Life with another human being isn’t simple.
Sometimes our struggles come from things totally outside of our control: The loss of loved one, unemployment, struggles with kids. But a lot of the time the struggles we face are easily avoidable, and come from habits we can break. So take it from me, someone who has learned through many years of partnership in good times and bad, it’s better to do the hard work now to build better systems than to wind up on the brink of divorce.
1. Stop nitpicking.
You don’t always know what’s best.
I know you think you do. I sometimes think I do, too. But when it comes to stuff like how the dishwasher is loaded, where stuff is stored in the garage, or how to make spaghetti, you are just as right as your partner.
I know a couple who has been married over forty years who bicker nonstop. Nothing is good enough for either of them. They have two kids in their thirties who haven’t gotten married or even had serious relationships. I’ve never asked their kids why, but I’d guess they see relationships as a source of stress.
In gardening, the plants you nurture are the ones that grow. In marriage, the conversations you have every day are the ones that take root in your relationship. Stop nurturing conflict.
Hot tip: Implement a 1-10 rating scale for issues that bug you.
Assign a value to how important any issue is to you. For instance, if your partner doesn’t put your 2 year-old daughter in a child safety seat in the car, this would probably be a 10. That means your partner automatically takes it very seriously. It’s a non-negotiable. Another instance might be leaving multiple empty tea mugs around. This is a thing I do that bugs my husband, but he has ranked it a 3. It’s not life-or-death, but I know it bugs him so I try to check before he comes home to see that I don’t have a giant collection of them all over the place.
For this to work, you both need to be reasonable. I promise you that leaving dirty dishes in the sink is not a 10. But that doesn’t mean it’s stupid. For a very tidy person, a mess causes a lot of stress. But if it’s not of the utmost importance, try to take a deep breath and let it go.
2. Lean into your sexual desire.
It can be easy to let sex fall to the bottom of the list of priorities. But for many of us, losing our desire isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a slow decline, often in conjunction with raising small children or aging.
There are a lot of things you can do to try to increase your desire, but one simple tip is to “lean in”. No, I don’t mean literally (though that might work!). I mean that when you feel desire – even just a tiny twinge of it, such as “she looks great in those jeans” or “he has great shoulders”, lean into it and purposefully stay in that moment of appreciation and lust. Don’t just let it pass.
Purposefully drawing out a moment where you feel a spark will often help that spark grow into a wildfire. Remember when you were overcome by desire for your partner? Well, it isn’t going to happen again without a spark.
Hot tip: Every day, make a point to observe to yourself what’s sexy about the person you married. Even if you’re mad or feeling cruddy. You don’t have to say it out loud (though that’s nice), and you certainly don’t have to have sex. Just think about them as an object of desire, even if just for a moment each day.
Note: if your desire is very, very low and it’s causing an issue in your relationship, seek out help from your medical doctor or a certified sex therapist. Often there are factors that can be addressed and treated.
3. Stop thinking you’re a better parent than your partner.
You probably aren’t.
Yes, there are abusive, neglectful parents in the world, but let’s presume for the sake of this article that your partner is trying hard and is a good person.
Often, the parent who spends the most at-home time with the kids feels like they should have authority in everything from how the bottles are washed to where the kids attend school. Sometimes the at-home parent has learned stuff the hard way – maybe the bottles get mildew in them and are ruined if you don’t dry them a certain way. The other parent should respect that knowledge, but that knowledge also needs to be presented in a calm and rational, respectful tone. Nobody wins by default, but we should be willing to respect what the other brings to the table.
Hot tip: Grow your appreciation for your partner’s unique parenting skills.
Next time your partner is interacting with the kids, sit back and stay out of it, but remain present enough to observe what’s so great about what they do. Maybe your partner wrestles and rough-houses with your kids in a way you don’t. That’s good for kids, if they enjoy it! Maybe your partner has a way of disciplining that you’d never use, but ultimately helps your kids do better. If you don’t make an effort to stay out of it look for the good in what your partner is doing, you may miss the incredible benefit your kids are gaining.
4. Stop policing your partner’s choices.
Your partner isn’t a kid, and you shouldn’t be parenting them or bossing them around.
Of course there are things that impact your family and couplehood that you get input on: The general budget, monogamy (or not), big parenting choices, decisions that could put someone in danger, etc.
But other than that, what your partner does isn’t really your business. Even if you think you have a really good reason for why he shouldn’t go surfing in the rain, or why she shouldn’t go to that restaurant with her friends, it’s really not your business. Your partner is an adult.
Hot tip: If you treat your partner like a kid, they’re eventually going to “grow up” and leave you, the same way kids grow up and no longer need their parents’ control.
Other ways you shouldn’t be policing your partner: About their clothing, their exercise or food habits, how they spend their disposable income, or how messy their closet or personal space is. It’s not your business. You’re just being a controlling jerk, and that will not end well for you.
5. Get a hobby… together!
Find something to do that isn’t just watching TV or going to your kids’ events.
Healthy couples cultivate hobbies that bring them closer together and offer opportunities to talk, particularly alone.
One of the best pieces of advice my husband and I ever got from a therapist was to build something together. We ended up converting our kids’ old sandbox into a garden plot, and it was amazing. We both went into it with open minds, and while we didn’t agree on every little aspect of it, we had a unified goal.
We had so much fun doing that. I got to operate a jackhammer, and we both worked up a sweat picking away at the hard desert clay. When we were done, we had this awesome thing we had created together. As a result, working in it makes us happy.
Hot Tip: Hiking or taking walks are awesome to do together. There’s something really healing about talking through tough stuff while walking. It’s almost like that physical movement helps prevent you from getting stuck emotionally, too.
Whatever it is, find something you’d both like to do together and pour a lot of energy into growing that thing.
No matter what any RomCom or cheesy magazine tries to tell you, marriage is hard. But it doesn’t have to be a struggle. Grow what’s good, cultivate your love, and express your appreciation for one another.
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