Keeping a good marriage great is just as important as fixing the problems.
I was reading Psychotherapy Networker the other day when I came across the issue of how therapists can help clients who have done some really good work on addressing problem areas in their marriage.
Steven Stosny said in an the latest edition that an important way couples can entrench health ways of relating to each other is through the concept of “habituation”. He says:
..a growing literature on relapse prevention suggests that you can help the couple retrain their brains, so to speak, by instituting new associations—which, with continual repetition (this is the critical part), can gradually encode new, more relationship-positive associations. None of this is high-tech or tremendously sophisticated, but it does what all training and regular practice is supposed to do: establish new patterns that may become stronger than old ones.
So what does this look like?? Glad you asked. (You were asking, weren’t you?)
He suggests a series of daily rituals which combined take a total of 5 minutes (surprisingly small amount of investment for the most important relationship in your life):
Make some brief, nonverbal acknowledgement of your partner’s importance to him or her at the four major transitional times in the day: before getting out of bed in the morning, before leaving the house, the first thing when you come into the house, and the last thing at night. (Behaviors done at major transitional times tend to have more carryover throughout the day.) This should be a gesture, like a brief touch, gentle eye contact, or just reaching out your hand. You should notice within a few weeks that affirming your partner’s importance first thing in the morning and last thing at night is one of the pleasanter ways to improve over-all health and well-being.
Hug your partner, in a full-body embrace, six times a day, holding each hug for at least six seconds. Hugs are usually the first thing to go when a chain of resentment binds a relationship. The less you touch, the more resentful you get. The 6 x 6 formula isn’t arbitrary. You probably don’t hug more than once a day now. Increasing that to at least six times a day increases the chances of raising your level of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. The six-second minimum for each hug recognizes the fact that in the beginning, some of the hugs will feel forced and awkward. It’s all right if they start out that way, as long as they become genuine at about the fifth or sixth second—which is likely to happen if you’re still attached. You’ll eventually find that it’s easier to put your heart into the embrace than to resist it.
Set aside five seconds for a positive thought about your partner at least five times a day. How you think about your partner when you’re apart largely determines how you behave when you’re together. Think of assets she or he brings to your relationship and how he or she makes your life better.
The other strategy he suggests is that the therapist work with the couple to have a “fire extinguisher” of sorts around. He reminds us that fire extinguishers don’t just put out fires, they are visible reminders of the risk of fire, and those who are conscientious about the risk of fire have them around as a practical commitment to reducing fire risk. Steven has created a CD which couples can use to remember some principals he has taught them…he doesn’t even expect them to listen to it, but having it on display in their home is a cue to them to their commitment to a quality, life-giving marriage, and the work and communication that is required to maintain this.
I love his closing line:
“When it comes to day-to-day living, if you want to love big, you have to think small.”
so…Go, think small: in many tiny little moments, in wee bits, and in almost-lost-but-found-in-time moments in your relationships today. Let little droplets of love and commitment gather bit by bit, collecting over time, providing gentle evidence time after time, over and over, so that they pool together in an expanding way and gradually fill the loved one in your life full of the love that you have for them