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As a fiction writer who started out in romance, I've written 21 books over the last 18 years that explore what makes a relationship strong and healthy. I’m not a therapist or a psychologist, but I have been married to my fantastic husband Terence for 30 years, and we’ve picked up a few tips along the way.
In my latest novel, Pack Up the Moon, Joshua and Lauren Park take their marriage vows seriously. Not just the “in sickness and in health, forsaking all others,” but the “love, honor and cherish” part. That’s the stuff marriage is really made up of—the day-to-day minutes of love-honor-cherish. Every morning, my husband pours my cup of coffee and brings it to me. Every night when he comes home, the house is tidy and there are flowers from our garden on the table. I create our social life and plan our vacations; he takes care of my mother’s house and plows the driveway when it snows.
In many ways, the fictional marriage of Lauren and Josh is built on my own. Lauren makes sure Josh’s life is balanced with fun and family; Josh protects Lauren and appreciates her in a way no one else ever has. Terence reads everything I write and thinks I’m a genius. In return, when his job as a firefighter becomes too sad or filled with maddening bureaucracy, I remind him that he saves lives, gives comfort in a time of need, and is a living hero in a field most people can’t or won’t take on. We know each other’s weak spots – my shut-down reaction to stress, his penchant for feeling like an outsider – and we help each other when we hit those patches. We talk about the hard stuff and try to make it better. Here are a few things that I’ve learned that help keep our marriage fresh and strong.
We focus on the small stuff
For Terence and me, those daily rituals are the stones that cement the foundation of partnership, a foundation built to weather the storms of loss, frustration, sickness, and disappointment. That cup of coffee is more than coffee: It’s a sign of love and caring. And when you say, “Thank you so much! This is perfect!” you’re telling your honey that those little acts are seen and valued. Those flowers on the table are a message that home is a wonderful place to be.
We hug when we first roll out of bed
This habit started a long time ago, when my husband and I lost our firstborn. The idea that that our baby didn’t even get to draw breath was almost unbearable. But every morning, when we woke again to that tragedy, we’d hug (and cry). Ours was an intensely private and horribly public grief. Everyone knew, and no one wanted to say anything. That physical hug, the act of holding someone as hard as you can and being held onto in return was and is the physical reminder that we are together in whatever life threw at us. But it’s not just for the hard times. Most days, it’s a simple, physical reminder that we’ve still got each other, and we’re grateful.
We let each other know we're top of mind
I know couples who go throughout the day without talking to their spouses. I guess I understand—if you’re a surgeon, for example, it might not be possible to text your spouse. But most of us do have at least a little window to reach out. If I see something he would love, I take a photo—maybe it’s the clouds from an airplane, or a monarch butterfly. It’s such a little thing, but it lets him know that he’s foremost in my heart. Even though we’re apart, whether it’s for a few hours or a long stretch of days, he’s still my #1.
We show our love for each other
It can be as superficial as saying, “You look nice in that shirt” or as deep as, “You make me feel so safe.” Compliments make a person feel seen and appreciated. You don’t have to go over the top; just be sincere. An article in Neuron showed that on MRI, your brain actually lights up when you give or receive a compliment, the same parts that light up when you’re given a monetary reward. In that way, a compliment really is as good as gold.
And don’t forget PDA. Remember that term? Public displays of affection. Not the “get a room” type; something as simple as holding hands or leaning against each other, dropping a hand on their shoulder. This is a public statement of your love and bond with your person, a statement of pride that this person is your spouse, and you’re damn grateful.
And get away from the screen
When our son left for college, my husband and I were alone in the house for the first time in 24 years. That kitchen table looked empty with just us two, the kids’ seats vacant. We started eating later and watching a movie or show rather than sitting at that seemingly huge table. With the TV on, we talked less and ate more. Aside from the occasional comment about what we were watching, there wasn’t any conversation at all. We finally realized that going back to the table was about more than just adjusting to our new life in the kids’ absence. It was a chance to be with each other without distraction and appreciate the effort that went into preparing the meal, too.
Similarly, turn off the devices for a little while each day. There’s nothing better than feeling like the two of you are the most interesting, best part of the day, and you can’t get that feeling if one of you is scrolling through social media.
We speak our troubles out loud
I’m better at this than my husband, I’ll admit. He tends to get very quiet when things are hard at work and doesn’t always tell me if there was a particularly difficult call; a kid trapped in a car, badly hurt or the horrible realities of seeing someone who has burned to death. Over the years, I’ve tried to tell him he can talk to me about these things, that sharing those difficult days doesn’t hurt me. It may take a few gentle prods, but he’s gotten better at it. It’s important to be receptive to hearing those things, too, and making the space and time to let your partner talk. Silence can be detrimental to a marriage. It’s easy to assume you’re at fault when your favorite person isn’t speaking. Being able to talk about the bad days or difficult relationships reminds both of you that you’re human, have struggles and can rely on your honey to ease the burden a bit.
That said, try not to focus all the talk and energy on the thing that’s wrong. That “for better and for worse” part of the vows? Keep some better as a part of every day. When you’re going through the difficult times—and we all do—find a way to acknowledge something positive, too, even if it’s small. Recently, I was having difficulties with a book release and had vented to my husband for a good long time. Then, sensing that it was time for a subject change for both our sakes, I said, “Let’s talk about what color we want to paint the kitchen.” It was a way to put a period at the end of the negative conversation and focus on something fun and homey.
We make direct eye contact
My husband has the nicest green eyes. It was one of the first things I noticed about him when we met on a street in New York City. We all know something special happens when you look into the eyes of the one you chose. Almost like, “Hey, there you are! I love you.” Looking into the eyes of someone you love releases oxytocin, the love hormone, according to a study from the University of California at San Diego, and there are dozens of scientific articles about how feelings of empathy, trust and intimacy also increase with eye contact. We tend to pay more attention to someone if we’re looking at them, and so much communication is nonverbal. When your special someone looks you in the eye and smiles, you also feel seen and appreciated. It’s another way to pause the world for a few seconds and remind yourself that this is your person.
We've masted the art of a sincere apology
Is there anything worse than a crappy apology? The one that starts with, “Fine, I’m sorry, but you…” Nope. That is not an apology. “I’m sorry for my actions.” Note that period at the end of the sentence. You don’t want to justify or explain them away. You want to apologize for them. Admitting you were wrong is such a relief, because you don’t have to be perfect all the time. You get to be human instead. When you apologize sincerely, you’re making yourself vulnerable to your spouse, and if you’ve chosen well, they’ll swoop in with understanding and love. You’ll be reassured that even if you screwed up, you can own it and be forgiven. Then, try to learn from that thing you had to apologize for. Don’t do it again.
But we spend time away from each other, too
Everyone needs more than one person in their lives. Friendship should absolutely be part of your marriage, but you don’t want your spouse to be the only person you can trust, lean on, laugh with. Going out with friends or coworkers or on that annual trip with college friends lets you step back and nurture other important relationships. And then, when you get home, give your honey that big hug and say, “It’s so good to be home.”
My husband and I share the work
When my husband cooks, which is 99.9% of the time, I clean up (unless our kids are visiting, in which case they do). If I start the laundry, he’ll fold it. Sure, there are some chores that the other likes to do or is better at doing. I am a master of bathroom cleaning, but when the dog throws up, I’m wicked glad to be married. However you divide things up, sharing the work of keeping a home lets you both feel more a part of it.
Finally, say “I love you” every time you part ways for work, a trip or even ending a phone call. You’ll never regret it.
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