There are two times in a marriage when couples are most likely to split. The first comes around the seven-year mark. The second comes at around 12 years. Whether or not you’re near one of those milestones, it’s always good to monitor your relationship health. Here are a few tips to guide you through a marriage checkup.
In the seven-year danger zone, splits happen because of conflicts. Not surprisingly, this time frame is when many couples are starting a family and dealing with all of the associated stresses. The warning sign in this time period isn’t how often you fight. It’s whether you fight the right way.
Specifically, look at whether your conflicts are characterized by Dr. John Gottman‘s “Four Horsemen.” Gottman gave these behaviors such a dramatic name because their constant presence in a marriage strongly predicts which couples will divorce.
The Horsemen are:
If you don’t like the behaviors you’re bringing to conflicts with your husband, you might need to cut yourself a break and focus on self-care. When we’re stressed (as most of us seem to be constantly), we get more controlling, rigid and judgmental in our relationships with others.
At 12 years, couples tend to split because they’re becoming alienated from each other. Again, our stressed and busy lives play a role. It can be tricky to nurture your relationship amid everything else you’re juggling, but it’s vital.
To keep your bond strong, consider questions like these.
- Is the amount of physical intimacy in your relationship satisfying for both of you? Your physical relationship strengthens your emotional relationship.
- Do you treat each other with the same consideration that you’d treat good friends?
- Do you take advantage of opportunities to show love and appreciation — such as greeting each other warmly after your work days?
- Do you practice deep listening (making eye contact, summarizing what the other said, etc.) with each other?
- Are you curious about each other? In other words, do you ask yourself questions like “He seems tense. I wonder what’s going on with him?” instead of leaping to conclusions?
Whether you’ve been married one year or 50 years, look through this blog for more tips and insights to improve the health of your marriage. Although your relationship may feel fine right now, doing a regular checkup can be an important part of keeping things on track.
You know that look in his eyes or that certain touch. He’s feeling amorous. But you’re just not in the mood for sex. Everyone feels like saying no to sex sometimes. But it’s important to do it in a way that respects your partner’s feelings and that maintains the overall health of your relationship.
Some Myths About Sex and Marriage
It might ease your mind to know that there are some common misperceptions about sex and marriage. The big one is that there’s some “magic number” — the amount of sex you’re supposed to be having. That’s not just true. The number of times you have sex in any week, month or year isn’t important. What is important? That both of you are satisfied with the amount of sex you are having. Frequency of sex varies a lot among happy couples.
We also tend to have a very limited definition of what sexuality can be in a relationship. If you aren’t doing “the deed,” it doesn’t mean that your marriage isn’t sexual. A sexual connection is about more than intercourse. It can also mean holding hands, feeling an emotional bond, making loving contact or sending sexy texts. At times in a marriage where intercourse naturally wanes — such as after the birth of a child — it’s good to have this expanded vocabulary of sexual acts to draw on to keep your bond strong.
Be Honest about the Underlying Cause
Sexuality is an important part of your marriage. If your desire is misaligned with your husband’s, start by looking for possible causes.
There could be a physical reason you’re just not in the mood for sex lately. Health issues, medications, hormonal changes, aging … they can all put a damper on your libido. Consider getting a checkup if you suspect a physical cause for your lack of sexual desire.
Your lack of desire might also have an emotional component. You might be bringing some other issues into the bedroom. If, say, you’re super-resentful that he doesn’t do more around the house, it’s hard to feel too frisky. It’s important to deal directly with the problem that’s dampening your desire.
Or you could just be plain exhausted by the frantic pace of our lives today, so you stop having sex as often. Unfortunately, the less frequently you have sex, the less likely you are to want it (use it or lose it). If your sex life has fizzled out because you’re busy and tired, try scheduling some time to get intimate when you’re not so worn out. This doesn’t sound very romantic, but it actually works.
If You Do Need to Say No to Sex
When you do turn your husband down, communicate what’s going on with you. For example, “I’m exhausted after these past two days at work” or “I just can’t stop thinking about my mom’s illness right now.” He needs to know that he’s not the reason you’re not in the mood for sex. It’s also helpful to suggest another time the two of you can possibly connect sexually.
Taking a pass on sex will feel a lot less charged if your husband isn’t the only one who ever initiates it. If he’s always the one who has to risk rejection, he could just stop asking. Make the first move sometimes.
Consider Saying ‘Yes’
Sometimes you really, really are not in the mood for sex. When it’s just not happening for you, don’t hesitate to say no. But sometimes your mood might be more “eh” than “no.” Or maybe you know that you tend to get more into things once sex gets started. If that’s the case, consider giving him the thumbs-up. But this should not become the pattern in your relationship.
For more advice like this, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. I wrote it to help busy couples enhance both physical and emotional intimacy.
With Valentine’s Day near, it’s a good time to talk about the work of The 5 Love Languages by author Dr. Gary Chapman.
Chapman’s book has sold millions of copies, and with good reason. His 5 Love Languages framework is a helpful way of understanding how you and your spouse express and feel love. The idea is that once you know which Love Language each of you speaks, you will be more effective at making each other feel loved.
Let’s take a quick look at each of Chapman’s Love Languages.
1. Words of Affirmation
If this is your Love Language, it’s extra-important to you to hear your partner say that you are loved and appreciated. Really, though, who couldn’t use a few more kind words and compliments? Remembering to express appreciation or to praise each other builds up goodwill in your marriage. Your words of affirmation don’t have to be elaborate or flowery. The important thing is to share them when they come to you. Of course, if this is the Love Language for either of you, be more deliberate about expressing loving compliments or bragging about your spouse to others.
2. Acts of Service
Some people show their love by doing things for the people they care about. Traditional husbands often speak this Love Language, but their message may be missed if their spouse speaks a different Love Language. For instance, your husband may be doing things for you, but you may not feel loved until he compliments you or gives you gifts. Of course, this can go the other way too. You may be the one whose always bending over backward to take care of your husband and end up feeling unloved if he does not help you around the house without being asked.
3. Receiving Gifts
There is a strong emphasis on giving gifts in our society, and days like Valentine’s Day often place tremendous pressure on husbands to find the right gift. If this is your Love Language and you have your hopes set on a particular gift, be sure to speak up. It’s much more effective to be direct with your husband about what you want instead of dropping hints or assuming he should “just know” what you like. Remember, he wants to make you happy, so he’s not likely to get his feelings hurt if you point him toward the gifts that make you feel treasured. Your directness will spare you unnecessary disappointment.
4. Quality Time
So how are you supposed to speak this Love Language when both of you are crazy-busy? One way is by offering undivided attention when you can. Even something as simple as acknowledging each other with a warm hello when you get home goes a long way. That being said, if this is the primary Love Language for either one of you, you must make spending regular quality time together a high priority.
5. Physical Touch
Humans need loving touch. It helps us feel safe with each other. Some people need more touch than others, so if that’s the case with you or your spouse, look for ways to be physically expressive with your love. Perhaps add a kiss and a hug to that post-work greeting or hold hands when you’re sitting on the couch. Remember, though, that touch isn’t always synonymous with sex. It’s not uncommon for parents to go through sex droughts because of a lack of time or privacy, but expressing physical affection can keep the fires burning till you can get back in the groove.
Talking with your husband about your respective Love Languages can open up new intimacy in your marriage. Take an online quiz and discover which Love Languages the two of you speak! Apply what you learn, and see how it draws the two of you closer.
I’m a big fan of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. You may remember a past blog post where I shared some of Siegel’s advice about what to do when you “flip your lid.”
Today, I want to talk about another strategy from Siegel. You may have heard of his Connect and Redirect method in the context of parenting. But the ideas behind it can strengthen your marriage (or any other relationship, for that matter).
The key thing to remember about Connect and Redirect is that any interaction will be more fruitful and satisfying if you take a moment to establish emotional connection before launching into what you need.
In our marriages, though, we often forget this step. Because we’re all so busy, it seems easier just to “cut to the chase.” We also tend to take those we’re closest to for granted and be much more abrupt and less tactful with them than we are with other people.
But taking that extra moment to build connection pays off. It helps your spouse get into the mental space where he can truly hear what you’re saying and engage with you.
Make Connection a Habit
Establishing connection doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated. Loving touch and positive eye contact go a long way. So does acknowledging what’s going on with your husband before you bring up the topic you want to discuss. You don’t have to reserve this communication technique for big, important discussions. It’s just as handy when you’re dealing with the routine concerns of family life.
Compare these two interactions:
- Your husband arrives home clearly still stressed from work or his commute. You shout from the kitchen, “The cable’s out again – what are we going to do about this?”
- Your husband arrives home looking stressed. You greet him with a quick hug and kiss and ask what’s up. He says traffic was much heavier than usual during his drive home. “Ugh! Frustrating!” you commiserate. “When you’ve had a chance to unwind a little, I want to talk to you about maybe changing cable providers.”
In the second interaction, you’re letting your husband know that he’s cared for and that he doesn’t have to put his defenses up. You’re making it easier for the two of you to work together for a solution to the cable issue.
As I said earlier, sometimes we have to be deliberate in giving our spouses the same consideration we automatically show our friends. If you know this area is a trouble spot for you, you may want to remind yourself to frame things with your husband the same way you would if you were talking with a friend. If, for example, you needed to reschedule your weekend trip with a friend, you’d probably take a minute to check in on her life and see if it’s a good time to talk before you told her about the change in plans. But you might be tempted to skip those “niceties” with your husband.
Remember, though, that we all need reminders that the people we care about care about us in return. When we get them, we show up more fully and give more generously. The time you invest in nurturing that feeling of connection is well worth it.
Sometimes, I hear from angry readers who don’t believe I’m supporting women being strong. Their words have a common theme:
Why should I do my part to make the marriage better when my husband isn’t doing his? Why are you telling me to be respectful and patient when he doesn’t deserve it? Why should I appreciate him when he doesn’t appreciate me?
I get the feeling these readers think I am urging them to be a doormat. But that’s not the case. After all, the name of this blog, and my book, is Strong Women, Strong Love.
The kind of strength I am talking about is broader than the type most revered in our culture.
In the U.S., we tend to celebrate those who are fiercely independent, firm and unstoppable — who take a stand and won’t ever back down. That’s what we usually think of as real strength.
But there’s another kind of strength, too. One that’s more valued in the East. Think about the willow tree and how it stands strong in the storm because of its tremendous flexibility. Or, the power of water, even as it follows every bend and curve of the river bank.
Both kinds of strength, being determined and being flexible, have value. We do face circumstances that require us to stand firm. But we also face times when we’d be better served by calling on our openness and adaptability.
Keep being a strong woman, but consider expanding your definition of what it means to be strong.
If you can call on both kinds of strength — being firm and being flexible — you’ll be better able to cope with the ups and downs of both your relationship and life as a whole.
I recently had the opportunity to hear author and marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis speak.
Weiner-Davis is the author of Divorce Busting, among other books. As you can tell from that book title, the heart of her approach is about helping couples avoid divorce if at all possible.
I think her work is interesting and useful. One of Weiner-Davis’ resources that I’ve been sharing with my clients is The Last Resort Technique. It’s something you should read immediately if you feel that your marriage is in serious jeopardy. Weiner-Davis defines this as your husband filing for or definitively asking for divorce, being separated from each other, or still living together, but with little to do with each other.
The steps in the Last Resort checklist align with advice and strategies I’ve written about here in this blog and in my book, Strong Women, Strong Love.
Call off the Chase
As a first step to saving your marriage, Weiner-Davis advises “stop the chase.” That means no calls, buying gifts, etc.
In a past blog post on handling a separation, I wrote about why this strategy works:
If your husband does actually leave the house, don’t pressure him to come back. Allow him to experience the reality of what divorce from you would mean. … Give him space to understand your importance in his life. It’s possible he’s not interested in reconciliation and will eventually want a divorce. It’s also possible that if he truly experiences a separation, he’ll eventually start missing you and the life you have built together.
I’ve also written about how research has shown that a pattern of chasing isn’t good for marriages:
In technical terms, the pattern in which one spouse wants to confront the issue and the other withdraws from such a discussion is the pursuer/distancer pattern. E. Mavis Hetherington’s landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals found that couples who routinely related this way had the highest risk of ending up divorced.
The second step of the Last Resort Technique is “Get a life.” Feeling depressed and desperate when your marriage is on the brink is natural, Weiner-Davis writes. But, she says, it’s important to “remember who you really are.” In other words, you’re much more than your response to the current crisis in your life. You’re a whole person, not the “jilted wife” or whatever demeaning label you might be applying to yourself.
Weiner-Davis recommends doing things to get back in touch with yourself, such as deepening your faith, reconnecting with old friends or pursuing a new interest or hobby.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of maintaining a strong sense of self no matter what’s going on in your marriage:
It’s about engaging in what truly makes you feel alive, showing up as yourself, and drawing a line when others don’t respect you. It’s being playful, confident, and engaged in your own life. As therapist Esther Perel has so eloquently noted, distance, space, and mystery stoke the fires of attraction. Be yourself, enjoy doing your own thing, and you’ll amp up the attraction in your relationship. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself how attracted you would be to your husband if he was really needy and had no life outside you! Not much, I bet.
Weiner-Davis makes no guarantees that the Last Resort Technique will save your marriage, but she writes that “it works often enough for you to be eager to give it a shot.” And, she adds, “even if your marriage doesn’t improve … your mental health will.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Michele Weiner-Davis’ Last Resort Technique, consider her new online course, The Last Resort Technique.