I recently saw the movie Hope Springs, in which Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones portray an empty-nester couple on the skids.
After 30-something years of marriage, they sleep in separate bedrooms, no longer have sex, and limit their communication to the necessities.
Tommy Lee comes home from work, sits in his recliner after dinner to watch TV, and promptly falls asleep. Meryl washes up after dinner, wakes him to go to bed, and they proceed to their separate bedrooms.
At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Meryl’s character has been lonely and dissatisfied with the marriage for quite some time. She signs them up for a week-long intense marriage therapy program, dragging a very reluctant and defensive Tommy Lee along with her.
Both characters have their issues, but Tommy Lee’s character has built layers of walls and resistance over the years. You keep praying he will finally break free and embrace the real love his wife is offering him. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t seen it. Regardless of where you are in your marriage or love relationship, this is a movie worth seeing — with your partner!
The Steady Decline
The characters in this movie didn’t reach the point of marital malaise overnight. It was a slow process of losing connection with each other that led them to become strangers under the same roof. Sadly, I think this is the state (or the future state) of many marriages in the real world.
If a marriage or relationship begins with a foundation of love, chemistry, and friendship, the couple can ride that tidal wave of happiness for several years. But real life has a way of chipping away at that foundation, especially after the initial intense passion begins to wane.
With the pressures of work, raising a family, financial struggles, and unmet needs, many couples begin that slow and steady decline toward living separately while living together under the same roof.
A hundred years ago, marriage was a necessity for survival. Someone had to earn the money (the man) and someone had to raise the children and tend to the home (the woman). By the time the last child was out of the house, death of one or both partners wasn’t too far behind. The life expectancy in 1900 was 47 for men and 49 for women (and much younger for African American men and women). Divorce wasn’t necessary because marriage generally ended the old-fashioned way.
Today the average life expectancy is 78.6 years and higher in many states. That means a couple getting married in their mid-twenties could be together for 50+ years before one of them dies. That’s a long time to sustain a happy, healthy marriage. Roles for men and women have changed drastically over the last century. Marriage isn’t a necessity any longer. It is much easier for couples to walk away.
The decline of many marriage relationships often begins when children are born. Suddenly the relationship itself is relegated to the back burner while each partner scrambles to take care of life responsibilities and still snag a scrap of their former freedom.
Our culture in the last 25 years or so has venerated child-centered families rather than marriage-centered families. We put far more time and energy into birthday parties, extra-curricular activities, and carpooling than we do in connecting with our spouses and tending to the marriage.
But marriages are not self-sustaining. Like a garden, they require regular care.
A little water and sunshine will keep it alive. Daily attention, weed-pulling, and fertilizer will make it thrive. When a marriage reaches the empty-nester stage, you need a backhoe to clean out the brambles and give it a chance if you haven’t been tending it all along. Sometimes it’s too late.
If your marriage or romantic relationship is stagnating, drifting into a roommate arrangement, or turning bitter, you can begin to turn it around if you both have the desire for something better. And if things are pretty good, it never hurts to refocus your attention on the relationship to ensure you aren’t unknowingly letting something slide.
Your marriage relationship needs to be the number one priority in your life — not just in words but in actions. If this relationship isn’t healthy, it will taint all other areas of your life. Take a hard look at your own relationship, and ask yourself truthfully where it ranks in relation to work, hobbies, kids, television, etc. Is your love relationship number one?
If it’s not, here are four things you can do to put your marriage or romantic relationship back at the forefront of your life and nurse it back to full health and vibrancy.
1. Create Time
If you aren’t actually spending time every day with your beloved, it’s hard to have a real relationship. Filling your days with work, chores, and child-centered activities doesn’t leave any room for time with your spouse.
You must make that time non-negotiable. Commit to have breakfast together without the distractions of TV, the newspaper, or children. Get up 30 minutes before kids awaken if necessary.
Take time during the day to check-in by phone or meet for lunch on occasion. Set aside an hour or so at the end of the day to talk, share the events of your day, take a walk, or just sit quietly together.
Set aside regular evenings for a date night each week and regular getaways together for a week or weekend during the year (without children). Make this time with your spouse a sacred commitment.
2. Have Fun
Just spending time together isn’t enough for a marriage to really thrive and reach its full potential. You need to have fun together.
Why do we get married in the first place? It’s not so we can sit around in a tired daze in front of the TV. We want a partner in life to share the not just the hardships but also the joys and adventures. We want someone to laugh with, to see the inanities of life and share in the humor of that.
Having fun with your spouse can mean traveling together, enjoying a sport or hobby together, going out together with friends, trying something new together. But it also means taking time at home for play, for lighthearted moments preparing a meal or cleaning out the garage.
It requires both partners to view the world less seriously and more playfully. Serious things will always be there, but we need to allow fun to have a big place in our lives. When you know your beloved wants to share fun, you want to be around them.
3. Share Intimacy
This doesn’t just mean sex, although sex is a huge part of relationship intimacy. If you aren’t having regular (weekly) sex, get on it! Allowing your intimate physical life to dwindle makes it far more difficult to rekindle passion. The longer you go without it, the harder it is to feel comfortable jumping back into to it. Don’t allow your partner to become a bedroom stranger.
If one partner requires more or less sex than the other, find a happy medium that still puts sex in your weekly life. Making love draws you together in many more ways than just physical. It sets the stage for emotional intimacy and fosters a biological attachment between the two of you.
Intimacy also involves regular affection and intimate but non-sexual touch (snuggling, back-rubs, holding hands, etc.). And intimacy involves sharing inside jokes, knowing what your spouse likes in his coffee, a few minutes of pillow talk in the morning before getting up. It involves understanding and responding to facial expressions, shifting moods, and emotional needs.
Intimacy requires knowing someone in the most personal ways, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of and often because of those things.
Intimacy is the glue that makes a couple a couple. It is the private, deeply personal elements of the love relationship that makes this relationship singularly central to your very happiness in life.
4. Provide Safety
I’m not talking about installing an alarm system in your house. Relationship safety is the security and knowledge that your partner has your back and will love you no matter what.
This safety requires that you and your partner can communicate openly without fear of anger or recriminations. It means you both can comfortably express your needs and fears. You both have the best interest of the relationship at heart when working for solutions to problems or issues.
This kind of safety requires that you don’t tally up scores, punch below the belt, embarrass each other in front of others, throw out painful barbs or underhanded zingers to prove a point, or attempt to control the other persons ideas, behavior, or needs.
When you have relationship safety, you treat your partner’s dreams and vulnerabilities with dignity. You listen and really hear them, without lining up your retorts. When anger or frustration does get the best of you, you are each able to ask for forgiveness and offer it readily.
On a daily basis, it simply means being kind to one another.
Please don’t allow your love relationship to drift into a state of malaise. If your marriage is good, continue to take preemptive actions to maintain its health and vibrancy. If your relationship is stale, falling into disarray, begin now to turn it around before it’s too late.
Special Note: The Habit Course New Self-Study Program is available September 10 for the general public. Get on the waiting list for an early bird discount.