Experts reveal how to strengthen your bond and bring back the spark.
Every relationship has ups and downs. But if the downs are more frequent or last longer, you may start wondering if your relationship is doomed.
It’s not. And you’re not alone in feeling this way.
“Relationships can certainly get stale, and it’s normal to feel differently about your partner after decades of marriage,” says Christine Baumgartner, a dating and relationship expert and owner of The Perfect Catch.
One reason: Humans are creatures of habit, she explains, which can lead to a feeling of just existing rather than enjoying life with our partner.
Empty nest syndrome may also be to blame, Baumgartner says. "Many people have very full, busy lives in middle age-with kids, jobs, and other obligations-and then experience a big shift once they retire and the kids move out," she explains. "This can make us wonder, 'Well, what are we going to do now?'"
Last, illness can play a role. “When one or both partners encounter health problems, it can have a profound effect on the relationship, changing what the couple can do together, altering their routines and schedules, and limiting intimacy and contact,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.
Now some good news: No matter what's dousing your spark, chances are good that you and your partner still know how to make fire. Here are seven simple ways to reignite your relationship.
Fire-Starter #1: Voice Your Feelings in First Person
If your union feels listless, the first step is to bring it up with your significant other. Use a first-person perspective with "I" and "me" language to voice your feelings so your partner doesn't become defensive, Baumgartner advises.
Here's an example: "I'm feeling kind of stuck at home, and I was trying to think of some things for me to do. What are some things I could try?"
Then ask them what they might like to do too. Once you decide on a couple of things to try, schedule them on the calendar to make it official. Read on for some specific ideas.
Fire-Starter #2: Find Out-of-the-Jar Activities
Thanks to Google, no matter where you live, you can discover fun activities, classes, and events you may not otherwise know about. In addition to searching for things you’re already interested in, check out Meetup.com, community events calendars, and senior centers in your area to try something new, Baumgartner suggests.
Some ideas: Go to a wine tasting, rent bikes for an afternoon, sign up for dance lessons, or take a cooking class together—whatever sparks your interest!
Another way to mix things up, Baumgartner says, is for each partner to create a “wish jar” of activities they’d like to try—anything from new restaurants to exercise classes to romantic dates. Then, when you want to make plans, take turns picking a piece of paper and do that activity together.
Fire-Starter #3: Spend Some Time Apart
"Every couple is different," Baumgartner says. "Some are attached at the hip, while others enjoy spending time alone."
While it sounds counterintuitive, it's healthy for your relationship to plan activities separate from each other. Ask yourself: Ideally, how much alone time do I need? How much time with friends? And how much time with my partner?
Then, discuss it with your partner. Maybe he or she needs one day a week alone, while you need two, for example. In that case, make sure your partner has a plan with friends that second day, while you enjoy your alone time.
“When you’re honest with yourself and your partner, you’ll be your best—and have the best relationship,” Baumgartner says.
Fire-Starter #4: Schedule Sex
Long-term relationships are often lacking in sex-and that's not good for your bond. One way to ensure you're getting it on regularly is to schedule it. It may not sound very sexy, but it works, Baumgartner says.
"Talk about how often you and your partner desire sex, find a happy compromise, and put it on the calendar," she suggests. "This ensures everyone knows ahead of time what's going to happen-and everyone can do what they need to do ahead of time."
To make it fun and not just another thing on your to-do list, make sure you come into it relaxed, Tessina says.
"Because of media influence, most couples have an exaggerated, stressful image of sex," she explains. "Focus on having fun, instead of meeting a goal. Some sex encounters go well. Some don't. So have a sense of humor-a lighter attitude makes sex more fun."
And if sex is lacking because physical intimacy is painful or difficult for either of you, share that with each other. This can happen for many reasons, from arthritis to hormonal changes to fear of resuming sexual activity after a heart attack. Talk to your doctor, who can help identify any underlying medical issues and next steps you can take.
Fire-Starter #5: Try the Physical Affection Buffet
There’s a whole menu of sexual activities you and your partner can try—which is good, because having options becomes more important the longer you’re together, Tessina says.
For example, if one partner isn’t up for intercourse, simply lying in bed and touching each other can be pleasurable, Baumgartner says.
You can also try mixing it up with different types of sexual encounters, Tessina says, including:
Romantic sex: Think candlelight dinner, dancing, dressing up, perhaps a lovely hotel room, or even a romantic meal for two at home. It’s great for celebrations like an anniversary or anytime you need a little spark.
Newlywed sex: Recreate your first married days, like the time you snuck into a guest bedroom, or when you surprised your partner with flowers or a gift for no reason.
Comforting sex: When one of you is sad or stressed, the other can be especially tender and soothing.
Relaxing sex: Laze around, have breakfast in bed, and take your time. No pressure, no hurry, and no demands on each other.
Fire-Starter #6: Express Your Love Out Loud
It’s easy to forget in long-term relationships, but everyone likes hearing how much they’re appreciated.
"Show your partner you care by expressing gratitude, even for little things," Tessina says. "If you're thinking about it, you'll be able to find things to express gratitude for several times a day."
And don't forget to simply be courteous. "Being familiar with each other is not a reason to drop your manners," Tessina says. "'Please' and 'thank you' should be used at home too."
Finally, remember that compliments cost you nothing, so aim to give them as freely as possible throughout the day. "Simply telling your partner, 'You look good' or 'I like your shirt' gives back countless rewards," Tessina says.
Fire-Starter #7: Embrace the Power of Touch
Hold hands, sit close to each other during a movie, give each other little pats and massages, or simply smile at your partner when you're together. These little interactions will keep the energy-and sweetness-flowing between you, Tessina says.
There's even a scientific explanation. "An actual electrical connection passes between us when we touch," Tessina says. "Neurology research shows that your brain 'lights up' when you look at someone you love."
In other words, that electrical connection can quite literally reignite the romance.
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