Love Over a Lifetime: Nurturing Our Marriage in Every Season
“That was the best ‘homework assignment’ we’ve ever had, Dr. G!” James exuberantly exclaimed as he sat down on the couch.
Linea was quick to add, “We haven’t laughed that hard together in a while. Clearly, we should go out dancing more often.”
James and Linea, like many of the couples I work with, were in the “thick of it,” – trying to find time for connection amidst the chaos of life. Linea chuckled as she shared, with frustration and tears close behind. “Between the kids, our careers, extended family, and all of the extras in life, we barely have time for ourselves, let alone each other.”
James and Linea are not alone in this balancing act. The number one stressor reported by Americans is not having enough time. Americans, across all socioeconomic factors, are feeling stressed out. Marital interaction is declining, workdays are longer, and leisure time is significantly dropping.
"Americans, across all socioeconomic factors, are feeling stressed out. Marital interaction is declining, workdays are longer, and leisure time is significantly dropping."
Couple this balancing act with the reality that marriage almost inevitably evolves from a romance to a working partnership, and we’re potentially in a hot mess. Research indicates that two years into a marriage, couples focus their activities more on domestic chores and home-based leisure. As the honeymoon fades, couples talk less frequently and for shorter amounts of time, become less openly affectionate—saying “I love you,” cuddling, and complimenting each other half as often as when they were newlyweds—and have sexual intercourse half as much. This is the general pattern for most American marriages.
So what to do? How do we foster intimacy and connection in our marriages over the long haul? I’d like to suggest four ways we can foster love over a lifetime:
- Make time for one another. Two practical ways to do this are spending ten minutes a day talking with your spouse and going on weekly date nights. For the ten minutes of talk time, the conversation cannot be about bills, meal prep, chauffeur responsibilities, grocery lists, etc. The focus should be on checking in with one another, asking questions and listening to each other’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns of the day. I also recommend a weekly date. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive; it doesn’t even need to be outside of the home. And if possible, once a month the date night should involve a new experience. Why? Research indicates that new experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that are associated with desire and pleasure. An occasional rush of marriage-euphoria is good for all of us.
- Fight fair. Conflict is inevitable in a long-standing, intimate relationship; disconnection is a normal part of the dance of intimacy. What matters most, though, is how we handle the conflict. Leading couples therapist and researcher John Gottman describes four interpersonal styles that lead to marital discord—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Perhaps more importantly, research indicates there are specific ways to navigate disagreements in healthy ways (e.g. “I” statements, complaining well, self-soothing, accepting responsibility).
- Forgive often. Forgiveness is a choice; it’s a conscious and intentional decision we make to let go of resentment or anger toward a person who has hurt us. It involves more than just letting go and moving on. True forgiveness goes a step further and offers compassion, understanding, and even empathy to the person who hurt us. Research indicates that people who forgive have reduced anxiety and depression, better immune system function, fewer stress-related health issues, higher self-esteem, and longer marriages. In cases of infidelity, research has shown that forgiveness is more important than time, relationship satisfaction, and commitment in overcoming the hurt and strengthening the marriage.
- Express appreciation. If you’re like me, it’s far too easy to name the things that are left undone as opposed to what has been done. In order to nurture relationships, words of appreciation are crucial. When we name the positive, we are making a conscious decision to be grateful. Research is abundantly clear that those who are grateful have healthier and happier relationships and are more likely to stay in committed marriages.
Reap the benefits of making small changes, which over time, leads to long-lasting and loving marriages!
For more on this topic, consider purchasing Dr. Gurney’s recently published book, Reimagining Your Love Story: Biblical and Psychological Practices for Healthy Relationships, follow her on social media (Instagram @andrea_gurney; FB @DrAndreaGurney), or subscribe to her monthly newsletter at AndreaGurney.com
Dr. Andrea Gurney is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and author. She has been working with individuals, couples, and families in her private practice for two decades and has been teaching undergraduate courses in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, Child and Lifespan Development, and Abnormal Psychology at Westmont College since 2005. Dr. Gurney earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, an M.S. in Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Psychology at Wheaton College. She completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Couples and Family Therapy and a Pre-Doctoral Internship in Individual Therapy at Harvard Medical School. She recently published her first book, Reimagining Your Love Story: Biblical and Psychological Practices for Healthy Relationships.