Romance, roses, chocolates and champagne are only a small part of what makes up a marriage. That’s an even more poignant notion once kids enter the scene. So if you want to give your spouse the most meaningful gift of all, commit to putting daily thought – and yes, work! – into your relationship.
“When you let your marriage just ‘sit,’ it’ll eventually get rusty and break down, just like your car,” says Todd Patkin, a dad and author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and – Finally – Let the Sunshine In. “And that’s a terrible tragedy. We all should have been told growing up that you do have to work on your marriage every day, too, if you want it to stay exciting and great.” Here are his nine tips on how.
1. Recommit yourself to your marriage every day.
No, you and your spouse aren’t going to incessantly stand in front of your loved ones in formalwear. But if you want to cultivate a strong and happy marriage, you should start each morning by making a renewed personal commitment to keeping your relationship healthy and rewarding.
“Don’t let your enthusiasm for working on your relationship be short-lived,” Patkin says. “Start by remembering what you said you’d do when you made your vows: Love your spouse. Honor her (or him). Cherish her. Comfort her. Remain faithful to her. And do these things in good times and bad, in sickness and in health – every day.”
2. Evaluate where your self-worth comes from.
With very few exceptions, we tend to base our sense of self-worth on the things that are most important to us, from careers to cars. But how often do you hear, “I am the world’s luckiest husband,” or “I have the best family”?
“Assess where your marriage really falls right now on your list of personal accomplishments,” Patkin suggests. “Are you consistently relying on something (else), to make you feel good about yourself?”
3. Verbalize to the things you love and appreciate all the time.
Remind yourself of all of the reasons why you fell in love in the first place, and then list how much more wonderful your partner has gotten since your marriage. Also, tell her (or him) how much she means to you, how much you love her, and how beautiful she is 10 times a day.
“Believe me, no one will ever say that they hear such compliments about themselves too many times,” Patkin says. “And not only will this make your partner feel great in the moment, but consistently complimenting one another is the single greatest long-term vitamin you can each give.”
4. Acknowledge the little things your spouse does, and return the favor.
Do small but meaningful acts for your spouse – and don’t be surprised if he or she starts to do the same for you. If your wife hates unloading the dishwasher, make a point to get into the kitchen and tackle it first. Or make a mental note to wash the sheets Friday afternoon so that they’ll be clean when your husband sleeps in on Saturday.
Acts like this don’t take much time or energy, but they show your spouse that you are paying attention and that you care – and that is truly priceless.
“Also, it’s key to acknowledge that you’ve noticed and that you appreciate this expression of your partner’s love,” Patkin adds. “Saying thank you – and accompanying it with a heartfelt hug or kiss – starts a cycle of giving and getting.”
5. Learn – and then do – what makes your spouse feel most loved.
Say you love to get gifts. So whenever you want to let your wife know that you’re thinking about her, you bring home flowers, a CD, a book. Only problem is, what your wife is really craving is a nice, long hug.
“The fact is that we all feel loved in different ways,” Patkin says. “Find out what makes your spouse feel the most loved. Simply ask, ‘What have I done in the past that made you feel the most special?’ Some people might want a date night. Others might need to be told verbally that they are the greatest.
“Then include those actions or words into your regular repertoire. You’ll notice a big difference, and you’ll probably find your spouse reciprocates.”
6. Don’t let resentment build.
When you live in with another human being, it’s inevitable you’re going to annoy each other. While it’s not a good idea to constantly nit-pick your spouse, it’s also unhealthy to let issues and negative feelings fester.
“Make it a priority to keep the lines of communication open,” Patkin says. “Even if you have to go for a walk to clear your head first, express your grievances in a calm, constructive way – preferably before you go to bed angry.
“Also, remember that this is a two-way street. When your spouse is upset with you, make every effort not to fly off the handle and to fairly consider what you’re hearing. Marriage does involve compromising and modifying your behavior for another’s well-being.”
7. Take responsibility and stop trying to fix your partner.
A lot of finger pointing goes on in marriages. After all, it’s easy to identify and list all the ways someone else is getting it wrong. But after you finish berating your spouse for yet another of his or her supposed failings, does the quality of your life actually change? Probably not.
While both partners do need to be willing to compromise in order to help the other, it’s always best to look at how your own behavior could improve before you try to change your spouse’s.
“Remember, people unconsciously begin to mirror the people they spend the most time with,” he says, “This happens for the good and bad! So if you start working on yourself, your spouse will most likely do the same.”
8. Figure out what your strengths are and play to them.
If, for example, you’re great with words but don’t have much of a math brain, don’t take on the task of making sure the bills are paid and the accounts are balanced each month. Instead, take the lead in dealing with teachers, repairmen, etc. When you force yourself to do something for which you have little aptitude, you only frustrate yourself and, by extension, the people with whom you live.
9. Date your spouse again.
When you’re newly in love and in full courtship mode, you do everything you can to spend every free moment with your partner. Eventually, work, kids and life in general get in the way. It’s easy to go weeks at a time without having any serious conversations that don’t revolve around work, money, or kids. That’s why it’s imperative to set aside time to date your spouse.
“Vow to take the time to invest in the romantic part of your relationship,” Patkin says. “Without that so-called ‘spark,’ the other parts of your life, like work and kids, will suffer, too.
“Try to act like you did when you were both in the infatuation period of your relationship: Bring home flowers. Plan a special date night. Get tickets to the reunion tour of a band you and your spouse loved when you first began dating. Get back to the essence of how you fell in love in the first place!”
This article was originally reported in February 2012.