By Dr. Delise Dickard
NOT LONG AGO, my husband decided to celebrate a special day by surprising me with a romantic vacation for just the two of us. He needed me to have some forewarning, so he created a cover story.
His cover plan was to have several girlfriends pretend they were taking me to NYC for a few days. At the airport, I would learn the real plan, and I would be whisked away for a week with my husband.
As the details were being discussed, an insightful teenager became privy to this plot and said innocently: “What if she’s disappointed? What if she would prefer to go with her girlfriends and not her husband? Then that would not really be a good surprise.”
So many people agreed with this possible complication that the plan was changed.
As it turns out, very many people my age—50 or older, married for decades, maybe raising kids, paying down a mortgage and caught up in the petty details of daily life—readily admit that they would rather spend time away with their friends than with their spouses.
So this begs the question: How can couples keep the love alive?
First and foremost, retain mutual respect. When you respect someone, there are actions you would not take. You would not spit in the face of someone like Mother Teresa or scream insults at your favorite neighbor.
Why, then, is it so easy to cross decent human boundaries in the confines of our own home? Our excuses are typically lame: Maybe someone left the kitchen messy, or deleted a carefully recorded TV show.
Of course, respect also can be lost in more serious ways if couples are caught lying to each other or if infidelity becomes an issue.
When your respect for each other gets tainted, as it most certainly will from time to time, be sure to repair the damage. The greater the damage, the more time you will need to make amends.
These respect issues are not insurmountable if the couple is dedicated to learning from them and moving beyond them. If you are at fault, then prepare to take these bigger respect issues very seriously. Get help, and take the time and energy you need to rebuild that partnership.
Repairing damage requires good communication.
Two books that help couples with communication problems are “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman and “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix.
I find the love language theory helpful in almost any relationship. The idea is that people love in different ways. Chapman describes five different love languages:
1. Words of recognition
2. Acts of service
3. Giving gifts
4. Physical affection
5. Time together.
All of these are great ingredients for a good relationship, and it can help to discover which ones are most important to you—and which ones are most important to your spouse.
As for Hendrix’s book, it provides exercises to help ensure that arguments don’t just run wild. The exercises teach you to validate that you have understood what your partner is trying to say, even if you disagree.
Another way to keep love alive is to retain a spirit of curiosity. In my marital counseling sessions, I cannot tell you how many times I hear “I know what he/she is going to say” or “We’ve been together so long we have nothing else to talk about.”
These comments amaze me because life is ever evolving, and we, as humans, are continuing to grow and change in ways that are unpredictable. I’ll never forget listening to my husband speak to a convention crowd of more than 1,000 people.
He was speaking about a topic we had never discussed. I remember thinking: “How does he know all this? I know everything he knows, and he can’t possible know all this information.”
Later, I had to accept that I didn’t know everything about him. There continue to be parts that are unexplored in every relationship. We must be open and curious about each other.
Another key to keeping love alive through the years is to remember to play. Personal health guru Dr. Oz says having sex twice a week extends your life by three years. If you are not enjoying your sex life, then find out what is going wrong.
“Playing” as a couple is not just about having sex, though. It is also about finding moments just the two of you can enjoy.
When couples who aren’t yet married describe to me what they do and where they go, they describe really fun activities and adventures.
On the other hand, many married couples have no more excitement than a trip to Home Depot or the bank.
I think it takes at least 15 minutes a day of good, private communication and at least one fun date a week to keep the sparks flying.
Finally, if you were wondering about my surprise week away—it was wonderful. It was truly a gift to me, because instead of creating a fully packed week of museums and exploration, which is what my husband would have loved, he gave me a week of tropical rest.
He gave me what he knew I wanted—no responsibility, no place to go and no agenda to meet.
With all due respect to my fabulously fun girlfriends, I truly enjoyed a week alone at a romantic getaway with just my husband of 20-plus years.
Dr. Delise Dickard is a life coach, psychotherapist and director of Riverside Counseling. She welcomes reader feedback. For contact information, visit riversidecounseling.org.