Strategies for making your bond as a couple closer and stronger.

You've both got jobs to do, a household to run, and maybe even children to raise. So the time you spend alone together is limited. How can busy partners build a sound, lasting relationship in such a high-speed world? A loving relationship needs careful attention and constant nurturing. But it's easy to lose sight of that when you're racing through the day, trying to meet so many other demands.

Here are some suggestions to help you cultivate quality and endurance in your partnership, so that it will go the distance.

The heart of the matter

What makes you a great couple? It may begin with knowing yourselves and not trying to change each other. Loving, long-term partnerships aren't born. They grow from a rich feeding on acceptance, commitment, ritual, and empathy. Here are some strategies to help you strengthen your heart connection:

  • Adjust your expectations. Accept yourself and your partner as you are now. It's natural to want the "honeymoon phase" to last forever. But it doesn't. Over time, both you and your partner will change, and the relationship itself will change as your lives become more complicated - after you start a family, for instance, or advance in your careers. You may find that you've lost some of the spontaneity that you once enjoyed, or perhaps your emotional needs have shifted because work takes more of your energy. If you accept that relationships evolve, you won't be disappointed when the honeymoon phase ends and another stage in your real lives as a couple begins.
  • Date each other. Spend time alone together to re-ignite the intimacy and romance in your relationship. It will help you remember what brought you together in the first place. It is important to "make" the time to be alone together, because you are unlikely just to "find" it. Once a week or once a month, schedule the kind of date you had when you were single or before you began your family. Agree not to discuss the children, the in-laws, or finances. Dress up and go out to dinner, see a movie, or spend a "quality" evening at home with the phone turned off.
  • Take turns planning the activities you'll do together. If you want to sustain your passion and rapport, romance must be an ongoing part of your relationship - not something that's limited to birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Become friends. It's not enough to love your partner, and it's never too late to become true companions. For long-term happiness, couples need to genuinely like each other - to be both lovers and friends. Friendship develops from shared values and mutual empathy. Spend more time having fun. Get involved in a "joint venture" that interests you both - gardening, making home improvements, or volunteering at church. Or take up a new hobby together, say dancing, jogging, or coaching your child's softball team.
  • Create rituals. They're the cement that helps hold a relationship together. The rituals you create together become familiar shared pleasures you can look forward to when you are fending off slings and arrows at work or in the other parts of your lives. Rituals take many forms: a goodbye kiss before work, breakfast in bed with the crossword puzzle on weekends, or an annual holiday shopping trip together. Develop your own rituals for daily life and holidays. Then practice them. They will enrich your lives by providing stability - acts of beauty, joy, and tenderness you know you'll have whenever you are together.

Partnerships take maintenance

"Maintenance" might sound like something for your car, but in fact anything you value and that you want to last needs attention and care. And you want your relationship to stay solid and run smoothly for years to come. The biggest part of maintaining your partnership may be awareness - noticing how each of you feels, and acknowledging the things that need to change to keep things functioning well. Here are a few practical tips from the relationship maintenance manual:

  • Take the pulse of your partnership. Just as you take stock of your career periodically, look carefully at your relationship from time to time and work toward making the changes you want and need. What makes each of you feel close as a couple? Is it physical affection? Relaxing together? Talking over coffee after the kids are in bed?
  • Discuss how you're feeling about the time you spend together. Is it enough? Do you wish it were a higher priority for your partner? Are you communicating clearly, honestly, and frequently about things that bother you? Or are you seething in silence about something that happened weeks, months, or maybe even years ago? Put all the issues on the table and begin making the compromises that will bring you into more harmony.
  • Make a habit of talking frequently. Just a quick phone call from work to "touch base" can help remind you of the priority of your relationship and give you both a sense of continuity. Some people use a phone call during the day as a way to settle family business, so that when they do get home they are freer to simply enjoy each other's company.
  • Plan in advance for getting around roadblocks. It's helpful to "pre-discuss" situations you already know cause friction between you. For example, you may have disagreements about who stays home from work when a child is sick or how you want to celebrate the holidays. Mapping out a game plan in advance will help you deal with such occasions when they arrive. Remember that compromise and teamwork are key. Ask yourselves, "What are the two of us going to do to solve this problem?"
  • Share household chores. Research shows that women spend more time on household chores than men do. Workingwomen can feel like they have two jobs - the one they go to and the one they come home to each day. The result is often a mountain of resentment. Running the household together takes work on the part of both partners. Men may need to play a bigger role, and women may need to stop criticizing their partners for doing chores "the wrong way." (After all, there may be more than one way to scrub the sink or do the laundry.) Try rotating chores to minimize the boredom and drudgery factors. For example, suggest, "I'll cook if you'll clean up tonight."
  • Be flexible. No matter how well you and your partner talk about your differences, you won't agree on everything. And that's normal. In fact, your differences are probably part of what attracted you to each other in the first place. Recognize that not all problems have to be solved. Sometimes you just need to agree to disagree - and be willing to listen to your partner's point of view.
  • Give each other space. Your relationship will be stronger and more interesting if you give your partner time and space without you. Remember that one person can't possibly meet all your needs. Both you and your partner must keep and nurture outside friendships and interests.

Taking courses, developing new hobbies, and going off on short trips alone can be exciting and refreshing, too. Your partner will come back revitalized, with a new perspective to share, and new ideas to discuss.

Fighting fairly

It's inevitable that you and your partner have conflicts and disagreements. Everyone does. In fact, conflict is a natural consequence of living intimately with another person. Expect to have differences of opinion and sometimes major eruptions with your partner. But also learn to fight fairly.

  • Don't say hurtful things when you fight. It's hard to show restraint in the heat of an argument, but it's important that you both try. Fights are part of a relationship, and they can actually be productive. But when fights include words designed to hurt, they can poison a relationship. Think about what you say in an argument. Even when you're angry, avoid using the words that you know will hurt your partner.
  • Find the strength to apologize after a fight. Both of you probably said things you wish you hadn't. And it's sometimes a matter of childish pride to wait for the other to apologize first. Find the strength to say you're sorry. It will do wonders at smoothing over the rough feelings left after the fight.
  • When you've had an argument, schedule a time to talk about what happened. Choose a time that's convenient for both of you and a place where you can really concentrate and hear each other. Sometimes it helps to get out of familiar surroundings to review a conflict. It can give you perspective. Go for a walk in the park. Drive to another part of town. Sit in a cafe.
  • Take turns explaining why you're angry - and listen to each other without interrupting. When you are talking, make an effort to keep your tone neutral; use about as much emotion as you would to say, "Please pass the salt."
  • Be respectful. Listen courteously while your partner expresses feelings and needs, and acknowledge them. Don't belittle his perspective.
  • Make "I" statements that express your feelings ("I feel hurt when you leave the dinner table without thanking me for cooking") instead of "you" statements, which assign blame ("You're selfish because you leave the dinner table . . . "). Never give advice, unless your partner specifically requests it.
  • Take care to avoid words or phrases you know are offensive to your partner and have made fights escalate in the past.
  • Keep your focus on the issue at hand. Avoid the temptation to resurrect events and "evidence" from your history as a couple.
  • If you are in the wrong, practice the lost art of apologizing. Simple words like, "What I did was not OK. I'm sorry," can often dissolve resentment on the spot.
  • Brainstorm together and decide on two or three constructive solutions you are willing to try on your current problem.
  • Agree on the first strategy you'll try. Make a plan and put it into action for a specific period of time, say a week or 10 days. Then check back with each other later to see if the plan is working.

Finding good solutions

Learning to fight fairly is an important skill in a relationship. Learning to apologize is another. Here are some other ideas that may help:

  • Trade off a bad habit. Are you always running 15 minutes late? Is your partner an Olympic-class procrastinator? Do you leave magazines strewn around the living room floor? Annoying habits can make the blood boil and lead to bitterness and resentment. Strike a deal to each throw out a bad habit that bothers the other.
  • Remember your partner's good qualities. In the hubbub of everyday living, it's easy to dwell on the negative. But for every dirty dish left in the sink, your partner has done a dozen wonderful things you simply couldn't live without. Get into the habit of looking for your partner's positive traits. Make mental notes of them and be generous with your praise ("You're such a great cook" or "I wish I had your patience with the kids").
  • It's also important to notice and acknowledge what your partner is doing for you and your family. Saying "thanks" will remind you of your partner's efforts. Hearing it will make your partner feel valued and encourage more of the same actions.
  • If you're feeling stuck, don't give up. Consider getting professional help. If none of your usual strategies are working, it may be time for a new approach. Therapists and counsellors are trained to help you develop new perceptions about yourself and the way you relate to others. They can get two people back on track and communicating in a healthy, effective way.

Above all, believe that if you feel love and commitment for each other, and are willing to grow, you and your partner can keep your relationship fresh, strong, and close. Relationships are vital and flexible. If you nurture them, they will thrive, even amid all the other demands you have on your time and energy.

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