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 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.


  • 1.

    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:

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    • 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.”

  • 2.

    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!

  • 3.

    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.

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