The One Habit Every Couple Needs For Their Relationship To Last
During a recent radio interview, the host asked me what I thought the secret to a successful relationship was. I thought of so many important things: trust, generosity, and good communication skills. But one stands out, and it is often one of the hardest for couples to manage: time.
Time to walk, to talk, and to experience the pleasure of being together.
Sometimes people think they need to go on a long and amazing holiday or adventure together, but that isn't the superglue that holds us together. It's important to make time for the small things, as this has a big effect on a relationship.
So often I see couples who are struggling from a lack of connection. They come in from their respective jobs, exhausted before our session begins. They want to do eight sessions, thinking that they can fix the trouble and then go back to their hectic, exhausting lives. It reminds me of those people who go to a fitness weekend thinking it will make them fit without them actually committing to going to the gym.
Connecting before conflict.
It's impossible to live with another person without feeling annoyed, upset, or angry at times. Sometimes it's not even that our partner has done anything wrong: We may be super irritable or overly sensitive, but if we're not able to talk about it, a little thing can grow into a big one. When I've just had a walk in the hills and shared a good meal with my partner and he asks me not to text him at work for the next few weeks unless it's really important because he has a big project on, I can hear that as a reasonable request and make sure I am thoughtful about not interrupting his day. If we haven't had any time together for a month except for coming and going and he makes the same request, it can sound like he is pulling away even more, and it's easier to interpret it as rejection rather than a reasonable request.
Without genuine connection, talking about a stressful or disagreeable topic can quickly break down communication between people who are already disconnected.
Remember, it's not the big things that build trust; it's the collection of small moments when partners affirm they care about each other enough to take time to be together, even in small ways and even when they don't have much extra time.
Rituals: one way we can build connection.
A ritual is a meaningful behavior we practice regularly. We seldom think about whether we feel like doing a particular routine; we simply get up, brush our teeth, start the coffee, and walk the dog.
Native Hawaiians practice a sunset ceremony every night: As the sun goes down, participants stand facing the ocean and silently reflect on the day. Did they keep their promises, do good work, and take that ocean swim they'd said they would? Which moments were touching, happy, or sad during the day? As the sun meets the ocean, that day, with its disappointments and its victories, is released as they await the dawn and the chance to begin again.
We develop rituals in our relationship without even thinking about it. One person makes dinner; the other cleans. We start each Saturday going to our favorite coffee house. Our partner brings us a cup of tea in the morning before they leave for work. Some people have wordless rituals for letting their partner know they want to make love, such as lighting a special candle.
Rituals comfort and nurture us. They become something we can count on no matter what is going on in our lives. Making regular time to connect with our partner is not only the soul food of love, but it maintains us through the stormy and frosty seasons of our relationships. Meaningful gifts and memorable trips are touching, standout moments in a relationship; however, it's the steady sprinkle of smaller moments of kindness and care that create a trusting and healthy relationship.
One of the most common complaints couples express is not having enough time to work on—and enjoy—their relationship. We don't need extravagant nights out to stay connected. Sharing a hot tub, simple date nights, and setting aside short moments during each day when we come together and move apart are even more important than the more dramatic things like climbing Machu Picchu or taking a Mediterranean cruise. Setting the intention to have a morning check-in or an evening exchange about the highs and lows of your day, and following through, can make a huge difference in your relationship.
Even a hug can make all the difference. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that couples who hug each other on the same day they have a fight tend to be less upset about the fight. Think of it as an insurance policy. If you hug and don't fight, it will feel great. If you hug and do fight, you will get over it much more quickly! It may feel like the last thing you want to do if you've argued, but think about the science: the oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) released in hugging softens your heart, allowing you to get over the trouble more quickly.
Making the time.
One expression has stayed with me through all the decades of my marriage: If we spend all our time cleaning the barn but don't ride the pony, why bother? If we spend 98% of our relationship going to our jobs, dealing with scheduling, or talking about what isn't working, the most essential ingredients of a good relationship—pleasure and appreciation of our partner—begin to disappear. It only takes intention and willingness to follow through to put them back into our day; if we can take the time to brush our teeth, we can take the time to hug in the morning. If we can take 10 minutes to check our social media in the evening, we can take 10 minutes to check in with our partner about their day or let them know what we appreciate about them, about our lives.
Writer Ursula K. Le Guin says it best: "Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new."
So right now, this very moment, make one small gesture to find 10 minutes today you didn't think you had to connect. Do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and watch the magic that begins to happen.
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Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.