When you glance across the breakfast table every morning to see the same crumpled face, and crawl into bed every night beside the same snoring body, it can be so easy to accept your long-term lot and shuffle into amiable companionship a million miles from the heady passion of when you and your partner first met.
The truth is that the fresh thrill of love simply can’t burn as brightly as it did at the start of a relationship after decades of marriage, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept the descent into tetchy boredom.
I’ve spent more than 30 years as a marital therapist and I’ve written 18 books about love, and I’m convinced that any couple, however long they’ve been together, can fall giddily back in love just by asking 20 simple questions.
Think of it as essential maintenance for your relationship — it will protect your love from the grind of daily living, deepen your bond and liven things up a little in the bedroom, too.
First, you need to understand the six stages of love, how it changes over time and why. Then take my quiz to assess your marriage. Finally, schedule time to ask one another my 20 carefully chosen questions — and you’ll soon reignite that first-date spark.
SIX STAGES OF A RELATIONSHIP
Every relationship goes through six stages. Understanding them is key because for love to last it needs something different at each stage.
1: Six to 18 months — Blending phase
This is the magical time when it feels like you’re walking on air and you can’t think of anything but your beloved. Any differences between the two of you are overlooked as you fuse into one.
2: 18 months to three years — Nesting phase
Sexual desire settles and creating a home together becomes the way to express your love.
3: Three to four years — Self-affirming phase
You’re confident enough about the relationship to enjoy separate activities again, and you’ve begun to knock off each other’s rough edges.
4: Five to 14 years — Collaborating phase
USING the security and self-esteem from your relationship, you take on a big project — a career change, new interests or starting a family. This is often exciting but can be the hardest stage for couples if one gets wrapped up in a project and neglects their partner.
5: 15 to 25 years — Adapting phase
You have to adapt to the challenges thrown at you, such as children leaving home or ageing parents, which can leave you feeling self-absorbed with little space for your partner or for fun.
6: More than 25 years — Renewing phase
You might share a sense of achievement for having come through so much together, but it is easy to be overwhelmed by other people’s demands and you must be sure to keep back enough energy for one another.
HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE?
Answer these key questions to find out if your relationship is healthy or hanging by a thread.
When you see each other after a short time apart, how do you feel?
A) Anxious about how things will go.
B) Generally stressed because I’m busy doing other things.
C) Not much, until I’ve had time to unwind.
D) A small surge of happiness.
How happy are you both with the amount of sex you’re having?
A) It’s not something I’ve ever really thought about.
B) One of us feels pressured, the other feels turned down.
C) More would be nice but things are generally OK when we get round to it.
D) Sex is good for us and we are both committed to making it a priority.
When your partner is distant, how do you react?
A) Let them get on with it.
B) I worry that I have done something wrong.
C) I’m concerned, but if I say anything I’ll probably be fobbed off.
D) I ask what’s the matter.
How much does your partner believe in you and support your projects?
A) Sometimes I feel really alone.
B) They’re supportive until I ask for something, such as time away.
C) My partner can sometimes be dismissive or can tease me about my projects.
D) Really supportive. I can talk over any concerns.
How do the two of you handle a disagreement?
A) One of us gets upset and cries, shouts or goes off in a huff.
B) We go round in circles until one of us brokers peace — but often things aren’t resolved.
C) We don’t have disagreements.
D) We can talk through our differences, listen and find a solution together.
What happens when there is a big decision to be made, such as buying something expensive?
A) Arguments and resentment.
B) The person who’s on the spot or who knows most about the topic makes the call.
C) One of us does the necessary research but consults the other before making a decision.
D) We’re a team and everything is done jointly.
How has your relationship been over the past 12 months?
A) Difficult. We have been prickly, dismissive or doing our own thing more than usual.
B) Incredibly busy, we’ve barely had time to talk beyond functional everyday conversations.
C) The usual ups and downs.
D) We’ve been really close.
If you scored mostly A: Your relationship could be in need of intensive care. You probably know your marriage is in a dark place right now, so you might need outside help, but first try my strategies to help improve the situation and even turn your relationship around.
Mostly B: It’s looking peaky. You might love each other but that’s unlikely to be enough to support your relationship long term. You both need to learn new skills to forge a stronger connection.
Mostly C: Your relationship is fine. You have good communication skills that are vital for relationship health, but there’s nothing to be lost by brushing up on them.
Mostly D: Your relationship is strong and healthy. You know how to communicate effectively and sort problems before they become serious, but it’s always good to take a deeper look at your relationship and search for (and talk through) any tricky subjects you might be avoiding.
THE 20 MARRIAGE MENDING QUESTIONS
Twenty years ago, U.S. psychologist Dr Arthur Aron set out to see if he could make two complete strangers fall in love just by answering a series of questions.
His experiment worked and remarkably the couple married six months later.
I’ve adapted those questions to accelerate intimacy if, like so many couples, you’ve started to take each other for granted.
When you’ve been together for a long time you might assume you know everything about your partner, but we all change and many of your assumptions could be based on old data.
To maximise the power of this exercise I suggest you make an effort: dress up, leave the house and treat it as a date night.
Remember to keep an open mind, maintain good eye contact and switch off your phones as you take your time to work through these questions:
1. If you were stranded with someone in the jungle, who (apart from me) would you like it to be? (A simple warm-up.)
2. In what historical period would you like to have lived, and why? (This shines a light into your interests and dreams.)
3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be? (Teases out the things we find hard.)
4. What would be your perfect day from waking up in the morning to falling asleep at night? (Helps you really get to know your partner as they are now, rather than as they were when you first met.)
5. If you could ask one of your parents or your grandparents one question, who would you choose and what would it be? (Helps examine your relationship with key people in your life through fresh eyes.)
6. For what in your life — beyond marriage and children — do you feel most grateful? (An opportunity to count your blessings.)
7. What do you consider your greatest strength and your greatest weakness? (Listen to and understand your partner’s internal chatter.)
8. What ambitions have you yet to achieve? (It’s important to review your life every so often and think about why you haven’t yet achieved them.)
9. Tell your life story from childhood to today in five minutes. (Even if you know the story, this might show up surprisingly new nuggets and emphasis.)
10. What is the most terrible memory from your childhood? (Helps you assess whether this moment still resonates today.)
11. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? (A chance to examine your partner’s fears and anxieties.)
12. What gives your life meaning? (Helps you differentiate between simple wants and fundamental needs and to work together to live more meaningfully.)
13. What qualities did I possess that made you think I was special? (Should remind you of your special bond, though equally it could be the source of frustration now.)
14. What was, for you, the most memorable moment of our wedding day or our first date? (Encourages the intimacy of shared anecdotes.)
15. What three things do we have in common? Have they changed over the years? (To get you thinking about your relationship today.)
16. When have you been made to feel small and ashamed? Give an example where I didn’t cause the shame and one where I did. (A way to tease out hidden resentments, so sympathize and, if necessary, be apologetic.)
17. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about in our relationship? (Helps you spot possible no-go areas.)
18. Complete this sentence: I wish I had someone with whom I could share . . . (It is good for couples to have separate interests, so this doesn’t have to be you.
19. If there was one small thing about my behavior that you’d change, what would it be? (Aim to make this a balanced trade-off between the two of you.)
20. Which question was hardest to answer and why?
You will have been surprised by some of your partner’s answers. Sleep on it. Don’t rush to assess anything. Then set up a time to discuss the questions and their revelations.
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