Don't let the tasks of life become more important than your relationship with one another. The typical couple I meet is dual career, young children, have a home and a mortgage. They're accomplishing all the tasks, managing their life, providing well for their children ... But they are growing apart. They divided and conquered all the tasks, but feel increasingly that they are growing apart.
Interwoven with this is the whole idea of living mindfully. I often think of this fellow I met who moved here from Italy midlife and told me how, back in Italy, he enjoyed picking out a loaf of bread for dinner on his way home from work. He'd go to the bakery and immerse himself in all the smells and sights of the loaves, and think about what he and his wife would enjoy with the dinner they planned. By comparison he says, here in America, he stops at the supermarket and there are hundreds of identical bags of bread on steel shelves. The pleasure is lost. More broadly, think about having a mindful marriage, where you strive to live in the moment (not so much the past or future) and enjoy sharing the tasks of life together. Don't make life into chores to be finished as fast as possible. So much of life does involve chores. Have even the chores be a shared adventure.
Don't "divide and conquer tasks" too often. It's the sharing that often matters more so than the efficiency! It's not a factory!
Give the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best of one another. So many situations in life are not black and white, and even fewer are right or wrong. Strive to look deeper and not doubt your partner. Don't get into the negative pattern of challenging or criticizing to get reassurance.
We have 32 teeth. Don't focus on just the one you lost. Caring behaviors. Do you know how your partner shows that he or she loves you? Be aware of these and regularly communicate your gratitude.
Beware of fast food or drive-thru ways of satisfying your needs. Fast Food. Things that are too fast aren't good for you. And I don't mean just food. Think of the Internet as a drive-thru offering all sorts of quick satisfactions for whatever your hunger. And beware.
Use the eschatological test, the "the death bed test." When you are looking back on your marriage from your death bed, what will have mattered most? What will matter to you in the long run? What will be important when you look back at your marriage from year 5, 10, 20, 50 or more?
When one partner sounds the alarm, it should always be a mutual alarm. Stop and think it through, talk it through. Don't dismiss it, try to not get defensive. You're not on trial! This isn't tennis, where you try to hit the ball back into an opponent's court! And it's not hunting, where you need to reload and shoot some more! It's about listening with the goal of understanding. It's about conveying that you understand, and working together toward balanced solutions.
Let's face it, women so often are more aware of relationship problems, more aware and aware sooner. I notice year after year that 95% of the phone calls seeking marital counseling are from the woman. And so often these women are not sure if husband will come to counseling ... But in that 5% of times that the man calls, things have progressed to a more dire point.
Marital problems, like human relationships more generally, even relationships between nations, can we viewed as struggles over our needs and defenses. What is it that we each need to be happy and how do we react and protect ourselves when we are not getting what we need, or fear that we will not. I sometimes wish I was a skilled computer programmer because I can imagine a video game that could be a simulator of this.
Communications is about listening and understanding, not about winning. It's not about being right. It's not about having it your way. If you "win" you lose! You can win every argument and lose your marriage. I see this often when an individual comes into counseling and says that he or she was "blindsided" by a relationship ending. "I came home and she'd moved out! Gone! Never even discussed it." I can only imagine what the partner would say. Certainly a very different story. It's about understanding, showing your understanding, showing that you care. I've come to believe that feeling understood and cared for is what it's all about. I think it was an old Century 21 Real Estate advertisement that said "people don't care what you know until they know that you care."
Enjoy shared dreams for your future together. Entertain them, elaborate them, talk about what it would be like. Don't worry about how practical his or her dreams are. Don't worry about that. They're not about today or tomorrow. Don't say "how can we do that?" or "we could never afford that." (For example, I remember someone who dreamed about living in NY City some day. )
Try to do this daily: Plan daily time together. Even 20 minutes, face to face without children, and without tv, computers and phone. Knowing you have this time is important, so keep it part of the routine.
Keep this in mind: Don't assume you know everything about each other. Share your dreams for the future, and also talk about all the hypothetical situations that come to mind: the things you can expect and the things you hope not to face. Start those conversations now and continue them.
And don't forget: The goal of communication is to understand and empathize, NOT to convince, persuade or explain. This is what will help your partner feel loved, and that's what's important. It is not you versus your partner. When it feels that way, stop and talk about that.
[Photo by C. Hindy: "Love Locks" on a fence in Boston]