What makes love last a lifetime? Affection? Yep. Respect? Sure. But a great marriage is not just about what you have. It's about what you do to make a relationship stronger, safer, more caring and committed. Here's how to make your "forever" fantastic.
This kind of dream-sharing starts early. "Couples love to tell the story of how they met," points out Julie Holland, M.D. a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "It's like telling a fairy tale. But happy couples will go on creating folklore and history, with the meet-cute forming the bedrock of the narrative." As you write and rewrite your love story ("our hardest challenge was X, our dream for retirement is Y"), you continually remind yourselves and each other that you're a team with shared values and goals. And P.S. When you share a dream, you're a heck of a lot more likely to make that dream come true.
Step 2: Ignite (and reignite) a sexual connection.
In any good relationship, sex is way more than just a physical act. It's crucial for the health of your emotional connection, too: It's something only the two of you share; it makes you both feel warm and loved; it draws you back together when you're drifting apart. And did I mention that it's a whole lot of fun?
Striking up those sparks when you first meet is easy. Nurturing a strong, steady flame? That's the hard part. When you've got a mortgage, a potbelly, and a decade or two of togetherness under your belts, it can be hard to muster up the fire you felt when you first got together. That's when it's even more important to protect your sex life and make it a priority. "You have to keep working to create allure and seduction for each other or your sex life will become lackluster," Greer points out. "Who wants the same turkey sandwich over and over? You want it on whole wheat! On toast! As turkey salad! On a roll!" (And now I will imagine my husband covered with Russian dressing. Thanks, Dr. Greer.)
As the years go by, you'll keep revisiting and realigning and reimagining the passion you have for each other. And if you keep at it, you'll have a sex life that transcends your marriage's lack of newness, the stresses of family and work, the physical changes that come with aging. Now that's something worth holding on to.
Step 3: Choose each other as your first family.
For years, you were primarily a member of one family: the one in which you grew up. Then you got married, and suddenly you became the foundation of a new family, one in which husband and wife are the A-team. It can be
tough to shift your identity like this, but it's also an important part of building your self-image as a duo (and maybe, eventually, as three or four or. ).
For me, making this transition meant stopping the incessant bitching to my mom when I was mad at my husband — my behavior was disloyal, and I had to learn to talk to Jonathan, not about him. My friend Lynn tells the story of her mother's reaction to a trip to the Middle East she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) had planned. Her mother hit the roof, calling incessantly to urge Lynn not to go. Eventually, Lynn's boyfriend got on the phone with Mom and explained why they were excited to share this experience. "It was clear then that we were the team," Lynn says now. "Not teaming up against my mother, but teaming up together to deal with her issues."
Whatever your challenges — an overprotective mom? an overly critical father-in-law? — you have to outline together the boundaries between you and all of the families connected to you. Not only will you feel stronger as a united front but when you stick to your shared rules, all that family baggage will weigh on you a lot less.
Step 4: Learn how to fight right.
I'm embarrassed to think of how I coped with conflict early in my relationship with Jonathan. I stormed out — a lot. I once threw an apple at his head. Hard. (Don't worry, I missed — on purpose.) I had a terrible habit of threatening divorce at the slightest provocation. But eventually I figured that this was pretty moronic. I didn't want out, and I knew that pelting someone with fruit was not a long-term marital strategy.
"Fighting is the big problem every couple has to deal with," says Daniel B. Wile, Ph.D. a psychologist and couples therapist in Oakland, CA, and author of After the Fight . That's because fights will always come up, so every couple needs to learn how to fight without tearing each other apart.
Fighting right doesn't just mean not throwing produce; it means staying focused on the issue at hand and respecting each other's perspective. Couples that fight right also find ways to defuse the tension, says Wile — often with humor. "Whenever one of us wants the other to listen up, we mime hitting the TV remote, a thumb pressing down on an invisible mute button," says Nancy, 52, an event producer in San Francisco. "It cracks us up, in part because it must look insane to others." Even if you fight a lot, when you can find a way to turn fights toward the positive — with a smile, a quick apology, an expression of appreciation for the other person — the storm blows away fast, and that's what matters.