Have you ever taken a stroll down the relationship book aisle at your local bookstore? If not, try it sometime. Everyone has an opinion on what makes relationships great, what tears relationships apart, and how to heal a broken marriage.
One reason relationship self-help books are so pervasive is because God created us for relationships. God created us to need Him and to need others (Genesis 2:18). Our love stories are important to us – and most of them don’t come easy – so, that is why the market can sustain thousands of marriage books. We want good marriages. We want our love to last forever. We want to avoid common pitfalls.
After bobbing up and down in the sea of advice – books, magazines, talk shows, and water cooler therapists – sometimes we just need to get back to the basics. That is how I feel about these suggestions below. They are simple. They are healthy. They do not need much elaboration. And doing them will improve your relationship.
- Stay in Contact. Staying in touch with each other sounds so simple, and it is – at first. When Eric and I were first dating (long-distance), I figuratively knocked old ladies out of the way to get home in time for our phone dates. Had texting existed when our relationship was new, we would have been in constant communication. There was nothing more important to me than hearing from my man. Shortly after we got married, however, the thrill was replaced by a sense of the commonplace. Sure, I still loved him. I loved him more than I did when we were dating. It was just… different… it was comfortable. We did not have as much to discuss as we did when we were gearing up for our wedding and the topics of our conversations changed from “What are our hopes and dreams?” to “Did you finish this assignment?” and “Should we try this recipe?” As relationships age, it is easy to fall into a trap of complacency. Novelty brings a sense of urgency, but familiarity leads to calm. We are more alert when driving on an unfamiliar road, but we can drive on a familiar road for miles without remembering any details of our commute. It is unrealistic to expect your sweetheart or spouse to message you a dozen times a day for the next fifty years, but it is realistic for couples to build contact reminders into their lives. A post-it note on the wall of your cubicle that asks, “Have you checked in with your honey today?” Or, a recurring alarm on your phone to remind you to send a quick, “Love you” text. After almost twelve years of marriage, it is nice when Eric messages me during the day. It does not have to be constant – just occasionally to remind me that he thinks about me when we are not together.
- Show an Interest in What Matters to your Sweetheart. Call me an old soul, but I have always been a longtime fan of The Andy Griffith Show. In my living room, stands an electronic, talking, Barney Fife ornament (which remains year round). I own seasons one through five of the series, (the black and white episodes – i.e., the good ones!); and, my bestie and I attended Mayberry Days in 2015 to pay homage to our beloved Andy Griffith (may he rest in peace). Eric has always been a busy guy, but on many occasions, he would flop on the bed beside me and “enjoy” a litany of Andy Griffith reruns with me – a small gesture which I never took for granted. You may not follow sports, exercise three hours a day, or play video games; yet, you can show interest in the hobbies and pursuits which mean so much to your significant other. You do not have to strap on a pack and climb Mt. Everest, but you can certainly be engaging when your loved one talks about it.
- Look at Him. Look at Her. He wore a blue shirt which made his eyes pop. He had a smile on his face no actor could mimic. He could not stop holding my hand, and he looked at me as if his life depended on our eye contact. About a month after we started dating, I came to town to visit Eric. We went to lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant and, to this day, I have never seen him look happier than he did looking at me during that meal. Words cannot describe how special I felt during that season of our lives. He could not take his eyes off me and… what do you know? I liked it! But, of course, as life went on, the eye contact waned. Our meals were not as exciting as that first lunch together. Phones became smarter and provided a greater distraction. If we are not careful, we can go an entire dinner without ever looking into each other’s eyes. It may seem ridiculously obvious, but taking the time and effort to simply look at each other can bring great comfort and sweetness to your relationship. You may not need this advice now (especially if you are still in the Mediterranean restaurant season of your love story), but tuck it away for later in case you ever find yourself more emotionally involved with your phone than your date.
- Pay Attention to His or Her Love Language. Permit me a moment to step onto my soapbox. (I promise to keep it brief!) There are people who scoff at the concept of love languages – rolling their eyes, making fun, and treating love languages as an unbiblical, selfish construct. No, you will not find a Scripture passage that says, “Though shalt speak thy loved one’s primary love language,” but you will find verses that command us to love one another. God’s word tells us that loving God and loving each other are the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40). So, if my mom, uncle, best friend, or significant other feels especially loved when I help with a chore, buy a small gift, or put my arm around their shoulders, would it not behoove me to pour my love on them in the most meaningful way possible? Like with anything good, understanding one’s love language can be turned into something evil. Sometimes immature couples use love languages as a weapon – withholding love to prove a point or punish (which is sin). “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:9, ESV). And, once we become aware of our primary love language, it is tempting to demand it of the other person. “You know gifts is my love language, so why do you not give me more gifts?!” Just as couples can use Scripture as a weapon against each other, they can also use love languages to cause pain instead of healing; but, just because some people use it for evil does not mean the concept has no value. Understanding how to best love your special someone and making efforts to speak directly to his or her heart is good and healthy. (Stepping down now.)
- Be Aware of Non-Verbal Communciation. “How’s your heart?” is one of my favorite questions and I wish I could take the credit for creating it. A couple of years ago, one of our female clients told us her boyfriend used that question to gauge how she was doing emotionally. “How’s your heart?” hits the bullseye in a way “How are you doing?” and “Is everything okay?” cannot. The first time I heard it, I felt emotional. Ladies and gentlemen (and, especially gentlemen), keep that question handy for the future (or bookmark this article! ~smile~). When we get wrapped up in ourselves, our problems, our stressors, and even our excitements, we can miss our loved ones’ subtle cries. “She is not singing while she cooks. She always sings. I wonder what is on her mind.” “He has not smiled once tonight. He usually tells about his day and laughs. I should see if he needs anything.” Picking up on non-verbal cues requires us to step out of our ‘circle of me’ and really notice our companions. We may not mean to become so tangled up in our personal affairs that we forget to notice others, but it can happen if we are not on guard. Setting up a few minutes to check in with each other at the end of the day can help couples notice facial expressions, changes in countenance, and signs of weariness or stress. Calmly questioning eye rolls, sighs, or agitated behaviors (rather than becoming offended by them), can help you and your loved one get to the root of what is troubling him or her. Your sweetheart may not be fully aware of what is eating at him or her, but by taking the time to notice the struggle, and to ask such a question as, “How’s your heart?” can help your loved one process emotions and resolve inner conflicts. When Eric lovingly notices me and seeks to restore my heart to joyful calm, I feel understood, important, and peaceful.
There you go. These points are nothing fancy, but they are tried and true, and will get results. Why? Because we respond to kindness and selflessness from others – maybe not always and not at first, but eventually; and, when we prioritize our sweetheart’s needs over our own, we fulfill God’s command to fulfill this passage:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV)
What are you doing to see these basics of relationship maintenance done?