Get Your Marriage Off Autopilot

Take a fresh look at your marriage and remember why you fell in love in the first place.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage


  • 3.

    Rediscover old pleasures.

    Go canoeing again. Travel. Revive your old interest in hiking or tennis or country line dancing. Do what you used to do. As one empty-nest husband interviewed for this book confided, “As a newlywed, I rebelled against convention by not wearing any pajamas in bed. Now I can do that again. Naked is a good thing. I love my wife’s body, and I’m comfortable with mine — naked is something that’s really enjoyable in the empty nest! We used to have a code word for being intimate: ‘It’s nice to get naked.’ We’re saying that a lot more these days!”

  • 2.

    Think you’re not attracted to your mate anymore? Rekindle passion by jolting your view of him or her out of the everyday and into the extraordinary. You’ve probably enjoyed this buzz of excitement if you’ve reunited after a few days apart. Here’s how to get it without leaving town: Get a glimpse of your spouse in a public setting by planning to meet before a date at his or her job or by arriving separately at a bar, restaurant, or event. Spend a few minutes watching your spouse before you meet up; appreciate his or her good qualities. You’ll probably feel a thrilling tingle when you realize, I’ve got a date with this man or woman!

  • 3.

    Get a fresh perspective on your own life.

    Finding the time and energy to pursue a personal interest — whether it’s learning a new language or how to solder plumbing, spiritual growth or windsurfing — can jolt you out of a comfortable personal rut. And in the view of Washington, D.C., psychotherapist Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., it can also bring new clarity and excitement to your marriage. Dr. LaBier calls this “constructive disengagement” — a seemingly paradoxical practice of pulling away from your marriage ever so slightly for the sake of personal growth and to create a more vibrant connection with your spouse. Create a goal and a plan for meeting it; breaking old routines also breaks old ways of seeing and reacting to your partner. The happiness and excitement of finding something new in your own life can also bring new energy and passion into your marriage.

  • 4.

    Let go of the past.

    Reunion-stage couples often see each other through the sad and bitter filter of years’ worth of regrets, resentments, and unfulfilled dreams. Experts say one of the keys to making the second half of marriage happy is letting go of old grudges and moving on. Let history be history, say marriage experts Claudia and David Arp. A second chance needs a clean slate. Their advice: Write down your grievances privately, then decide which you can live with, which you can fix on your own, which are worth mentioning to your mate, and which truly stand in the way of marital happiness. Forgive what you can, fix what you can, and have one discussion with your mate about issues you wish were different, then hold on only to the biggest, most important matters — such as growing closer emotionally and physically and deepening appreciation and respect.

  • 5.

    Look on the sunny side.

    You’ve forgiven. Now what? Make a mental list of all your spouse’s positive characteristics, from the way she makes the morning coffee to her kindness, from his proven commitment to your marriage to his wacky, unstoppable sense of humor.

  • 6.

    Use conflict to learn about yourself and each other.

    Disagreements aren’t disasters. Couples interviewed for this book, as well as experts, say that when you feel secure in your relationship, you can use problem-solving clashes to learn more about who you both really are. “Differences aren’t a problem. They’re the truth about us,” says Peggy Kinney of Durham, North Carolina. “When we disagree and can really be vulnerable and accept what the other one is saying, we build more trust.” Adds her husband, Andy Stewart, “Disagreements let us see and accept each other’s differences. We share what’s real about us and develop greater sympathy for each other as thinking, feeling, wanting, sensing human beings. And you learn to accept these things in yourself more easily too.” The Reunion stage is the perfect time to be this brave. You’ve been together for decades. You know that a difference of opinion won’t sink your relationship or even your partner’s affection for you. It’s easier to be honest when you know that your safety net has weathered bigger storms in the past!

  • 7.

    Look ahead to retirement.

    Setting a new course in the Reunion stage will help prepare you for the challenges of retirement and late-life marriage — such as the loss of your 9-to-5 workplace identity and the gaining of lots more time together. Ed and Sylvia Robertson are using the empty-nest years to practice for retirement. “We’ve stopped teaching summer school so that we can travel more, spend more time together, and get used to living on a bit less money,” Ed says. “We traveled some with the kids, but we didn’t have quite the same freedom. There were too many schedules in the house back then. We’re planning to write a marriage column for a newspaper after retirement and possibly a book, so we’re getting started on that to see how we work together and to refocus away from our academic careers. We’re working on our transition now, so that we don’t go whack! and hit retirement unprepared six years from now. There will always be surprises, of course, but you do what you can.”

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