Get Your Marriage Off Autopilot

Too often, marriage becomes comfortable, like an old pair of bedroom slippers. Cozy. Warm. Always there. And about as exciting

Too often, marriage becomes comfortable, like an old pair of bedroom slippers. Cozy. Warm. Always there. And about as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal.

We’re all for loyalty and contentment, but emotional and physical intimacy suffers when married life becomes too routine. When marriage is on autopilot, you are just going through the motions. The real you isn’t there — so you stop connecting with who your spouse really is. And you end up as two comfortable people rubbing along side by side, at best a little lonely and a little grumpy, at worst cold and distant.

It’s time to break out of the old routine. In the first mission, we asked you to shift your attitude about your marriage to a healthier, more unified place.
But the Reunion stage isn’t merely about getting back to where you were prior to having children; rather, it is a perfect opportunity to reinvent your marriage for the better. After all, you’ve got the time, the place, and the energy. You’re probably also more aware of your marriage now than you’ve been in years — a clarity brought to you by exiting children and a lessening of the responsibilities that kept you running 24/7 during the Cooperation stage.

Your first step? Don’t ever assume you know all there is to know about your spouse. He or she always has the capacity to surprise you, as Margaret Martin has learned. “We believe we’re never too old or married too long to learn something new about each other,” she says. “Once, years into our marriage, my husband, Rich, found out that I know the Greek alphabet. He was really surprised. It’s a small thing, but it illustrates my point. I also believe you’re never at the point where you can say, ‘This is as good as it gets.’ It can always be better!”

Here’s how to bust out of the old routine and reclaim a marriage that’s full of surprises, freshness, and the potential for always getting better.

[step-list-wrapper title=”” time=””] [step-item number=”1. ” image_url=”” title=”Polish your communication skills.” ] At last! The two of you can get through a discussion or an argument without interruption. You’re free to say what you want to say and what you need to say. And with more time and fewer preoccupations, you’re also free to listen more deeply to your partner’s point of view. The stage is set for great communication. You may find, however, that your talents have grown rusty thanks to years of speaking in shorthand. Now’s the perfect time to unlearn dead-end habits such as criticizing, blaming, attacking, getting defensive, or withdrawing into an emotional shell. The job’s more challenging than it was early in your marriage, simply because the two of you have developed your own “dance” over the years. You may scarcely be aware of it, or see only your partner’s steps. But if the two of you aren’t solving problems effectively, if you’re arguing, or if you’re not speaking freely about your thoughts and feelings and listening with acceptance and empathy, it’s time to learn the steps again. The basics:

  • Use “I” statements. Talk about your own feelings rather than what you think your partner is doing or thinking. And focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want. Your partner will have a much clearer understanding of your desires and of what you’d like him or her to do.
  • Listen deeply. Show that you understand and accept your partner’s thoughts and feelings. Rush to empathize, not to point out flaws or minimize emotions. Show you’re truly on the same team. Listen first for feelings, then for information (ask yourself what’s true or makes sense in what your spouse is saying). This strategy lets you focus on your partner’s message and not get caught up in blame or criticism that may come flying in your direction.
  • Resolve conflicts amicably with this three-step technique: First, each of you describes the problem in a sentence or two. Second, look at all your deeper concerns about the issue as well as your partner’s concerns. Third, explore a wide variety of solutions that address your deeper concerns as well as the problem at hand. Experts say that when you take these core concerns into consideration, you can find a solution that lets both partners “win.”

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[step-item number=”2. ” image_url=”” title=”Stop making assumptions.” ]Yes, you know exactly how your spouse likes her coffee or his hamburger. But you don’t know everything about him or her. Don’t assume you do — and you might be pleasantly surprised![/step-item]

[step-item number=”3. ” image_url=”” title=”Find a fun joint project.” ]You’ve shared a grand project — child-rearing — for nearly two decades. Why not find a new one that excites you both? “A joint project that interests both spouses is fun. And fun bonds people together,” notes marriage therapist Sunny Shulkin, Ph.D., of Philadelphia. “One couple I know went out and rented an RV and made a project of driving all over the country. Each stopped and chose their favorite CDs of music that reflected something about the region they were visiting. They would play them and sing songs together. When they returned home at the end of the summer, they were well connected.” The bonding time also helped them happily accept that each also needed some time and space to pursue personal passions.[/step-item]
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[step-list-wrapper title=”” time=””] [step-item number=”3. ” image_url=”” title=”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!”[/step-item]

[step-item number=”2. ” image_url=”” title=”See your partner as you did when you said “I do.”” ]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![/step-item]

[step-item number=”3. ” image_url=”” title=”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.[/step-item]

[step-item number=”4. ” image_url=”” title=”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.[/step-item]

[step-item number=”5. ” image_url=”” title=”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.[/step-item]

[step-item number=”6. ” image_url=”” title=”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![/step-item]

[step-item number=”7. ” image_url=”” title=”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.”[/step-item]
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Originally Published in Reader's Digest