“Marriage counseling” is currently one of Google’s highest searches.
Something in the ballpark of 50,000 people will research that phrase over the course of the next thirty days—that’s more than one search, per minute, for an entire month.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. This has been the hardest year I’ve ever lived through. Not necessarily because of the pandemic, the economic distress, and the uncertainty—all that has sucked, yes—but it’s everything else we had going on in the background before the storm hit.
After 32 years of marriage, my wife and I still have problems that present themselves, trying to derail us. Some of them major. We took the problems of 2019 and then added 2020 as a layer on top of it all. For many people, including myself, it’s been overwhelming.
Nothing improves without intentionality. That includes our closest relationships. It looks like things won’t change drastically by the end of the year, and as we enter the colder months, you’ll be spending even more time with your spouse. You might not be under a forced quarantine, but I bet you’re seeing more of your spouse than ever before. That Google search trend suggests it’s not always paradise.
Here are eight things you can do to help improve your marriage, right now. None of this is rocket science, but sometimes a good reminder and a will to move are all it takes. No matter what has happened this year, you can finish 2020 stronger than you started.
1. Spend regular time together
Remember when you were dating? The excitement to go out and see a movie? Surprise her with flowers and reservations at her favorite restaurant? Just because you live together doesn’t mean you don’t need regular time for just the two of you. Pretty much everything about your life competes with this. Chores and the upkeep of the home eat away your time. Work and financial strain make it difficult. Kids and family obligations put it on the back burner. All that is true…but time together is still critical.
What you value, you plan for. So pick a day and a few hours. Put it in your calendars and don’t let anything get in its way. When the day comes, put the kids to bed early; put your phones up; and then do something you like together. It honestly doesn’t matter what it is. Sit on the deck and drink bourbon. Watch a movie. Get takeout. Play a game. Give the bathroom a facelift. The possibilities are endless. What you do is less important than that you actually do it together. Open your calendaring app. Make it a date, right now.
2. Spend time apart
Since you’re having a calendar discussion already, also put time on it for yourself. Just like you need time with your spouse each week, you also need time alone or with friends. When you have experiences without your spouse, the marriage can still benefit, because you return to the relationship fresh and with new things to offer. Use your “me time” to pursue something that makes you forget about COVID. Play your guitar. Build a deck. Grab a beer with a friend. Go ride your motorcycle. Watch the action movie your wife constantly snubs. Too many of us are burning out because we never take time to pursue things we care about. Do something about that this week.
3. Check in, every day
Communication is the key to any healthy relationship, no matter if it’s between spouses, friends, or employees. The more you share with each other, the better your relationship will be. So check in, every day. It’s tempting to assume this happens naturally, but most days, it won’t. We move from breakfast to bedtime working together as partners to get the chores done, to get dinner cooked, to get bills paid. But sharing anything below the surface won’t happen on it’s own.
I’ve benefited in this area from something a friend created, ReKindle Cards. It’s exactly what it sounds like—a pack of cards which are conversation starters for couples. (Before you accuse me of it, I’ll say it—no, I don’t get kickbacks from any sales). They’ve been helpful to me and I believe they could be helpful to you.
But, honestly, this is a space for lay-ups too. Questions like these can work wonders:
- How are you feeling today?
- What is stressing you the most?
- Is anything causing you to feel afraid?
- Is there anything I can do to help?
- What is God saying to you?
- How are your other relationships?
- What do you miss the most?
- Are you excited about anything this week?
At the end of the day, sit down for twenty minutes and catch up. It will send you to bed feeling more connected to your spouse than endlessly scrolling Facebook.
4. Make financial decisions together
COVID hasn’t only introduced the world to face masks, it’s changed the way we spend and save our money. Before you go making any financial decisions, even if you set a budget years ago, talk it out as a partnership. Even though Lib and I have great financial flexibility as empty nesters, we choose to consult the other person before a piece of furniture or a truck part is purchased. Data all over the place suggests that financial disagreements are one of the leading causes of divorce. The added strain of 2020 will only amplify any financial stress in your marriage. Talk it out, take it slow, and don’t hesitate to get help. Better to pay for a financial planner than a divorce lawyer.
5. Go to bed
Everything is worse when you’re tired, and Americans are critically under-slept. Science says you should be getting at least 8 hours a night. You are not the exception to that rule. Even if you’re staying up together, bingeing episodes of your favorite Netflix show, your time would be better spent resting. The ancient Jews had it figured out. Instead of sunrise, their new days started at sundown—allowing every day to begin with rest and sleep. Tomorrow starts when you go to bed today. If you’re having a string of bad days at home, go to bed as early as possible and don’t let your spouse be there too long without you. Sometimes, all you need is a hard reset.
This is a difficult one, especially as a man, because my tendency is to fix problems. But listening well is one of the best things you can do for your spouse. Of course, there are times when a practical solution is necessary. But more often than not, your spouse is looking for a place to vent, a place to talk through their day or emotions, and a place to offload some of the weight of a difficult year. Listening allows him or her to do that.
Listening is communicated primarily through nonverbals. Things like:
- Maintaining eye contact
- Leaning slightly toward the speaker
- Nodding at appropriate times
- Repeating back what they’re saying, in your own words, to check for understanding
- Not interrupting
- Making empathic statements (“That must be difficult,” “I’m sorry it’s been a hard day,” “That sounds frustrating,” etc.)
Give yourself space to grow in listening. If you normally solve your spouse’s problems within a five minute conversation, try to stretch it out to ten. It not only takes the pressure off you to provide a good answer, but it gives space to really be heard.
7. Counseling is for everyone
Did I say it’s been a difficult season in my house? My wife and I have been doing much of this list, but found we still needed an extra boost. That’s why we went to marriage counseling yesterday. You need to stop feeling shame about counseling. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not an admission of guilt. It’s not whatever you think it is. It’s healthy (and even holy) to get trusted perspectives from outside of your home, on what goes on inside it. So even if you feel like you’re in a good spot, a check up with a counselor every now and then can work wonders. What I said about financial advisors applies just as well to marriage counselors—better to pay for that than a divorce attorney.
8. Plan something for the future
There’s nothing quite as motivating as knowing there’s a finish line. Put something on your horizon that you both can look forward to. My wife and I have been talking a lot about a trip to Alaska. It is great conversation fodder and gives us something to aim at. Difficult days feel more manageable with something to look forward to. Maybe it’s a dream vacation, a weekend getaway, or a big purchase. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something you both want, and that you spend enough time figuring out how to save up for it (remember #4 on the list above). Let this plan propel you forward when times get tough.
2020 isn’t a year I’d want to walk through again. But it’s our reality, and I’m determined to not let my marriage become its next victim. Implementing these simple steps is an easy way to not only survive this difficult year, but learn to thrive in spite of it.
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