Every marriage has its bumps, and they can pop up at any time. What's important is that you learn to navigate them smoothly-before they send your relationship into a ditch. No matter how far along the marriage highway you've gone, there are some simple, fundamental rules of the road. Putting them into practice isn't always easy, but it's critical. If you do play by the rules, you'll make your marriage stronger, and the good stuff-fun, sex, trust, affection-will be better than ever. Try these little things to make your marriage happier right now.
Build up your love balance: Boredom, frustration, and everyday irritations can douse the spark between you and your spouse-and more of the same certainly won't feed the flame. Making the good stuff your top priority will. Here's how to do it - first, consider that it takes up to 20 positive statements to outweigh the harm done by one negative one-or by a steely squint or impatient "humph." So do more of the former, less of the latter. Compliment your wife on her new shoes, or your husband on his new blue shirt.
Thank him for helping around the house. Dial her office for a quick "thinking of you" check-in (don't discuss household chores or bad report cards). Be sure these compliments and thank-yous are heartfelt and specific - "I can always count on you to make sure my car is safe and ready to use."
"This new tablecloth is nice-you're always thinking of ways to make our home pleasant." Make eye contact when you smile or deliver a compliment. Try a little joyful noise (a happy sigh, say) when giving a loving touch. Once you take this approach, you'll realize that, in addition to knowing how to push Mr. or Mrs. Right's hot buttons, you know how to push his or her joy buttons too (and we don't just mean sex).
After all, that's how this whole thing started. It won't be long before you appreciate that it's always the right time for small acts of love. Give him a "glad to see you" hug and kiss when you get home. Surprise her with coffee in bed on a rainy Sunday (then stay to talk). Revel in the best qualities; let faults slide. Flash your "I'm so happy we're here together" smile as you schlep the recycling bin to the curb. Resolve to enjoy a long kiss before you turn in each night. You do little things for your kids. Why not for your spouse?
Remember-nobody's perfect: It's tempting to blame your spouse when you feel angry, disappointed, bored, betrayed or stressed out about your marriage. Then it's a short hop to seeing your mate as the one who must change for the marriage to improve. That's a cop-out. Trying to improve your spouse puts him or her on the defensive and casts you in a dreary role. The result? Nobody changes. Nobody takes responsibility.
Everyone is unhappy. And making your spouse the bad guy means ignoring the 90 percent of him or her that's good. The true fix - change yourself. When you address your own flaws and seek the best in your spouse, magic happens. Optimism increases. Your spouse feels better because he or she feels appreciated, not chastised. And you both feel motivated to change in ways that lead to even more joy.
One tip to help get you thinking this way - adopt the Japanese philosophy of imperfection, wabi sabi ("wah-bee sah-bee"), which applies well to real-life love. Next time your guy or gal does something annoying, take a breath, mutter "wabi sabi" and remind yourself that his or her intentions are good, even if the execution isn't. At the same time, don't ignore what's good in your spouse. Each day this month, pick something, big or small, that you like about him or her. Then name it. For example:
"My wife is thoughtful" or "My husband makes me laugh." Then think of a specific act that backs it up: "She brushed the snow off my windshield last week." "If I'm feeling blue, he'll joke me out of it." Finally, honor your own imperfections. Sometimes we blame ourselves for all that's off kilter in our marriage. Too much guilt can paralyze. So, think of qualities you value, tell yourself you have them and think up real-world examples. "I am loving and kind-I gave my spouse the last cookie yesterday." "I am honest-I tell her what I'm really thinking." These are things your marriage counselor knows about your relationship.
Add some zing: The classic advice experts give to singles seeking a perfect match: Be "the one" to attract "the one." Same goes for marriage. The happier you feel, the happier your marriage will be, and the easier it will be to manage conflicts. If 15 minutes of morning yoga, a switch to decaf, or a new hobby gives you a relaxed zing, the good feelings can't help but lead to happier, richer moments together.
Meanwhile, admit it - you used to fuss over your hair and obsess over the sexiest item to wear to bed. Now, it's stained sweats and a ratty Rolling Stones T-shirt. Time to spruce up your look. Comb that mane, brush those teeth and throw on a new robe. Feeling good about the way you look makes your eyes sparkle. You're more likely to make eye contact. That sends a spark to your spouse. You know what to do next!
Pick the right time and place: Don't start potentially tough talks if you're not well rested and well fed. Hunger and fatigue can unleash nasty remarks and dark thoughts. Ban booze for the same reason. Save it for when you've achieved detente. That's worth a toast. Don't ever try to deal with serious marital issues if you've got one eye on something else. Turn off the TV, the phone, the laptop.
If you're distracted or going out the door, pick another time to talk. You can't resolve conflicts on the fly. Remember, too, that how you handle these situations doesn't just affect you. Is the conversation G-rated? Will it end happily? If not, stop and reschedule for when the kids aren't around. When they are, keep things respectful and productive. Research shows that children thrive (and absorb good relationship skills) when parents resolve issues constructively, but develop insecurities and behavior problems when exposed to hopeless shout fests.
Open your ears: The single most powerful step you can take to keep a marriage solid? Speak less and listen more. Blame, insults, criticism and bullying predict a bad end, or at least a living hell. When talk turns combative, don't interrupt, offer a solution or defend yourself too soon. When feelings are at issue, they need to be heard. So nod, rephrase or provide a soft "um-hum" to show you honor the emotions behind the words. Sometimes, all we really need to do to feel closer to someone is pay closer attention to what it is that they're saying.
The writer is a freelance journalist and contributor at www.rd.com
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