Four moves can reinforce your relationship—then you add the creative spark.

These days, marriages, long-term partnerships, whether business or familial, typically end. If, however, they do manage to last, most are pretty uninspired or, at best, a slight upgrade of our parents’ relationship. For example, if our parents never touched publicly, we, on the other hand, might hold hands with our partners. Or if our parents fought all the time, we might not fight per se but instead be a bit sarcastic with one another. Or if our parents stayed together for the kids, we stay together but split the minute the spawn go to college. I mean, not the exact scenario but predictably pretty darn close, no? Clearly, the theory that long-term relationships over time get complacent is pretty widespread. In fact, it’s common knowledge. But why?

We play junior

It has occurred to me that we, as a species, are not naturally monogamous to any one thing forever. We get bored easily. We’re a lazy, often bratty bunch. We make excuses, blame others and feel bad a ton. Right? And we don’t just cheat on our marriage with other people, we cheat with food, with attending to the kids, with work and with our addictions, and these are the things over time that break up our relationships and marriages. Anything that puts distance between you and your partner by taking priority over your partnership will likely break you up. We know how it ends, but how does it start?

In the beginning, we naturally make the partnership a priority—“senior,” if you will, to our individual desires. We are wooing, we are hormonally advantaged, all is new. We try. We want to get it on, we want to leave work at the door, we jones for our dates with our new love and, temporarily, that which used to fill our void is not that interesting. It seems cruel that this stage doesn’t “naturally” last, but just in case you think you’re the only one, know that even in the best, most romantic couples, it really doesn’t.

This is good news. Why? The fact that we have to grow up about love and partnership is good for our overall development and sense of power in our lives.

Do you want to believe in lasting love?

Are you still traumatized from having failed at making love last?

Are you starting to give up on finding love?

Are you near divorce and hoping for one last chance to make it work?

Making marriage senior again

If you fit any of the above, whether with regard to love or any sort of long-term partnership that you care about, the following advice will provide you with some hope and guidance.

  • Remember a time when your marriage/partnership was “senior” to the individuals in it.

I don’t mean when you were martyring yourself; I mean when you genuinely cared about the other person’s experience and wanted to understand it and you wanted to give. Was it ever the case? What did you do differently then? Remembering this will be a helpful anchor as you move forward.

  • Acknowledge that you haven’t been making your marriage/partnership “senior.” (This one might sting a bit.)

If you had been, you would have been thinking and acting the same way you did in the beginning: finding things to love and praise about the other, forgiving easily, staying focused on what would make things work, making time, doing things the other person loved instead of the other things you’ve been doing to fill your time, your need for comfort and your need for affirmation.

  • Fess up to what you have been making senior instead.

Deep breath here, people. Every time you cheat or even flirt with someone else, you put that person on the top rung, above your mate. When you have a secret with someone besides your partner, that person and you have a power over your mate. That, whether you like to admit it or not, impacts your relationship. Respect, trust and kindness begin to diminish immediately after the first lie, secret or omission is held. Then when a case has to be made to keep things secret, not only does your relationship strain, but you also find more to “not like” about your partner in order to justify your secrecy. It’s not a pretty cycle.

Thinking maybe you can get away with a work addiction? Not so fast. I was speaking to my boss’ husband about whether he thought the same kind of distance happens because of work and if he thought it was OK to put work on the top rung, above your marriage. He said: “It’s fine—if you don’t mind getting divorced eventually.” Me: Snicker, sigh.

When you put innocent or not-so-innocent flirting, work, your children’s supposed needs or your addictions above regular, meaningful alone time with your partner, it’s a clue you’re headed toward the danger zone. Most likely, you already have a pile of things you aren’t saying to your partner about how you feel, what you want, what you think of them and all your doubts. We usually “find” these other “distractions” after the deterioration has already begun. Very conveniently, both parties can then avoid dealing with the real things that broke them up.

The trend can be reversed if both individuals in the couple want to fight for the marriage, for the concept of marriage and for the concept of the marriage being senior to them as individuals. When that is the philosophy to uphold, each partner puts the other on the top rung over and over by sorting through the accumulated “laundry list” of complaints, insecurities, etc., telling the truth and designing married life to avoid common pitfalls.

  • Co-create rules and rituals. 

Every couple needs rules and rituals for how to come clean about crushes and flirting. Do you really think it’s not happening in your relationship? Of course it is! Get over acting like it’s not so that you can at least begin to talk about it. Phew.

You need additional rules, too. Here are some examples from clients:

1. Work: 6:30-8:30 p.m. is “no screen time” for the whole family, my partner gets 30 minutes of uninterrupted transition time when he gets home, I always call an hour in advance if I’ll be home later than planned.

2. Food: Dinner is always at 7 p.m., we only have dessert on weekends, no binging or purging and no drinking on weeknights.

3. Addictions: AA meetings three times per week, no hiding smoking or eating.

4. Kids: Uninterrupted kid time is one hour/night, and we decide who is in charge of making sure homework gets done.

5. Anything you lie about: Tell the truth. I advise you do this daily.

6. Anything else you are putting on rung No. 1: Tell it so you can catch it early.

The same rules don’t equally apply to both you and your partner. One might need to work more, the other less. The point is, saying what you really think, contending with each other’s thoughts and feelings, and then designing how you want it to be rather than living by default. (Remember, default is a natural distancing of you two).

To those of you saying, “I am on board with this but he/she isn’t,” I have news for you. You probably have some cleaning up of your own to do before you are going to get equal participation in the healing work. (There’s a reason you’re reading this and your partner hasn’t: You have to go first!)

Make the first move

Start with a heartfelt apology for how long your issues have gone unaddressed, any crimes you can cop to already (leave out any defending you will want to do) and the statement of a real dream for your relationship. Maybe you’ll get an easy yes from your partner, maybe you have to work a bit harder, or maybe it is honestly too late and you’ll discover it sooner rather than later and before it gets worse. Regardless of your partner’s interest in participating in this journey, you alone can do all four steps above and you will experience miraculous shifts as a result.

Even if your relationship ends, it should be after putting it first and giving your whole heart to making it great. You then have a much better shot at making your next relationship everything you want it to be. Trust me, I personally know it’s not easy to put down your seemingly urgent, individual (ego) needs in the moment in order to make your partnership senior, but I guarantee results that will warm your heart forever.

About Handel Group

Handel Group is a renowned corporate consulting and life coaching company. Its coaches improve personal and professional lives, one human at a time. HG Life coaches individuals to design and live an inspired life. By developing Personal Integrity® and aligning your heart, mind and actions with your dreams, HG coaches deal head-on with your current challenges in the most critical areas of your life, such as health, love, family, career and money. HG’s private and group programs provide the tools and support needed to awaken your dreams and cause lasting change.

For more tips on relationships and making your marriage work or life work, check out the amazing programs, resources, events and coaches from Handel Group. Interested in coaching but want to learn more? Schedule a 30-minute consultation.

Photo credits: vvmich, Adobe Stock; Andrey Popov, Adobe Stock; rocketclips, Adobe Stock; georgerudy, Adobe Stock