By Andrea Wachter, MFT and Steve J. Legallet, MFT
Do you remember the feelings you experienced when you first started dating your spouse or partner? Perhaps you felt excitement, attraction, and anticipation? Chances are you were exceptionally attentive, polite, and considerate with this exciting new person in your life. You likely made an extra effort to be on your best behavior. As the relationship has progressed, how well have you maintained those initial feelings and behaviors?
It is human nature to highly value a new love interest and to treat that person with great care and respect. Unfortunately, it is also human nature to become complacent and to take people for granted as time passes. Just as a child may excitedly treat a new toy as precious and valuable, only to lose interest and ignore it later, partners who have been together a long time may no longer treat each other as they did during the preliminary thrill of connecting. Once kids, careers, and life’s responsibilities are added to the mix, that initial level of loving kindness and respect can easily diminish.
The good news is that the spark of love, appreciation, and closeness can be reignited. It is possible to rediscover the special connection that brought you and your partner together in the first place. If you are in a long-term relationship that is starting to feel a bit stale or unsatisfying, here are some tips to help you rekindle the spark.
1. Remember and Re-experience — Remember those early days of dating, when your partner could do no wrong? You probably had butterflies of excitement at the mere thought of getting together. Perhaps you left your first few dates with the thrilling anticipation of seeing them again. If you did notice any less than favorable qualities, they were easy to overlook and probably overshadowed by all the things you liked. Unfortunately, over time, many people start focusing more on what they see as their companion’s flaws and shortcomings rather than the qualities they once found endearing.
As Marriage and Family Therapists, we have worked with many clients who have innocently fallen into that negative trap. What we have found is that most relationships can be greatly enhanced when partners consciously and regularly remember and re-experience the thoughts, feelings, and appreciation they once had for each other.
Try looking at your partner through new eyes. Consciously consider the things you like, love, and appreciate. Think about what you would miss about them if they were gone. Ask yourself: What attracted you to your partner in the first place? What were your early dates like? What were the qualities about this person that you found most loveable?
Recall the sweet times you have shared together and focus your attention on your partner’s positive qualities so you can re-experience the feelings that you felt in the early days of your relationship.
2. Listen Attentively — When you went on the first few dates with your partner, you probably did not have your face buried in an iPad or a cell phone. (Perhaps they weren’t even invented yet!) It is more likely that you paid close attention to him or her and acted in a manner that showed how much you truly cared about what they had to say. You probably wanted to know everything about them and listened carefully to what they shared about themselves. That loving attentiveness you once demonstrated and received can easily lessen as the years go by. Taking the time to intently listen to your partner can have a profoundly positive impact on closeness and connection.
If your partner initiates a conversation, whenever possible, stop what you are doing and make eye contact with this person you once adored. As they share their thoughts and feelings with you, truly focus on what they have to say. Remind yourself that since what they are saying feels important enough for them to share with you, they deserve your undivided attention. If the timing is not good for you, respectfully tell them, “I really want to hear what you have to say but I need a few minutes to (fill in the blank with your need) in order to be able to give you my full attention. Would that be okay?” Then be sure to keep your promise to return to the conversation and listen attentively.
3. Inquire Deeply — In the courting stage of relationships, people usually want to know more about each other. Granted, all the stories are new and hot off the press when you first meet, but even if you have been with someone for years, you can still remain genuinely open to wanting to hear more about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Even if your partner is retelling a story that you have already heard, think about how many times you have repeatedly listened to a song or watched a movie. There is always something worthwhile to learn from your loved one’s experiences and thoughts.
Practice asking your partner about their day or seize the opportunity to inquire more deeply if they voluntarily share something about themselves. See if you can really listen to what they are saying and respect that what they are telling you matters to them, even if it might be about a subject that you do not personally relate to. Try asking a few follow-up questions about what they shared. The key is to be fully present with this person you care about and to give them your full attention as they share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Listen to them in the same respectful, attentive, considerate manner that you would like them to have with you.
4. Mind Your Manners — Take an honest look at the way you speak to your spouse or partner, particularly when you are frustrated, angry, tired, or depressed. Unfortunately, for many people, if they spoke to their friends the way they speak to their partners, they wouldn’t have too many friends left. The tone we use and the words we choose can have a profound impact, both positive and negative, on the quality of our relationship. So it’s extremely important that we manage our emotions, which requires self-awareness, self-control, commitment, and maturity.
Remember to stay tuned in to your own thoughts, feelings, and needs so that you are able to communicate respectfully when your emotions are triggered. Too often people use harsh words that can unwittingly do damage and echo in their partner’s ears for a long time. To prevent this from happening, it’s always a good idea to ask for a time out when things heat up. Try using these three words in a respectful tone: “I’ll be back” and then let your partner know that you simply need to take some time to calm down and sort out your thoughts. Unlike Arnold, you’re not issuing a violent threat; rather, you’re informing your partner that you will be back when you’ve cooled off, and you will then be able to finish the conversation in a more respectful manner.
5. Stoke the Fire — In our busy, task-oriented world, we too often put our relationship on the back burner and forget to keep the spark of love alive. Getting caught up in our daily rituals and routines, we may miss the opportunity to shake things up romantically with the one we love. It doesn’t have to be two weeks in Tahiti. It could be a special date night or a spontaneous dance in the living room with the lights turned low. The point is: keep the intimate connection alive.
Find things that you both enjoy doing and then make the time to do them together. Maybe it’s engaging in an activity that you both used to enjoy — or trying something new and “out of the box.” Leave your smart phones behind and discover a new hiking trail, restaurant, or club. Silence the phones and play a board game, read a sexy book out loud, or slow-dance. Leave a love note in an unsuspecting place, give your partner an unsolicited massage, light some candles in the bedroom and play a song from your dating days. Shake up your routine, be creative, be playful, be open and kind. Most important: be present. Look for opportunities to stoke the fire. The possibilities are endless.
Will recalling the good times, minding your manners, listening attentively, inquiring deeply, and shaking it up romantically really make a difference? Is it possible to rekindle the spark that originally brought you and your partner together? Try some of these tips… and see what happens!