Go Ahead. Get Closer . . .

. . . with these 8 easy habits of the heart

Every married couple has their little habits. Maybe it's eating cereal together in front of the late TV news. Or reading the paper on the front porch on Saturday mornings. Or ordering Chinese food every New Year's Eve.

Every day, every week, every month, and every year, we cut long-lasting grooves or habits into our relationship—mostly without thinking. Yet in the daily grind, few couples realize that, with a little thought and intention, they could consciously cultivate a set of specific habits that will work wonders.

Try to turn these 8 practices into marriage building habits.

Once a Day . . .

Take time to touch (if only for a minute)
Think of some of the most romantic moments you've shared in your marriage. Chances are those moments involved a tender touch—holding a hand, a gentle caress on a cheek, an arm around a shoulder. That touch sealed the moment in your memory.

Touch is a way of writing in our collective diary to recall the moments we treasure. It's also critical to building romance and intimacy in marriage—and we don't just mean sex. We're talking about a tender touch while your partner is doing an ordinary task. A gentle squeeze on your partner's shoulder as she's preparing a meal, or a soft rub on his back as he's reading a book can communicate loving messages in ways our words never can.

Don't lose touch (pardon the pun). It could be one of the most important things you do all day.

Laugh together
We laugh a lot together. The tiniest thing can set us off—a slight inflection or a knowing glance. We can quote a funny line from a movie or sitcom for weeks. Better still are the unplanned faux pas in front of others that bring embarrassment.

Laughter bonds people. It's like taking a vitamin for your marriage. Proverbs 17:22 says, "A cheerful heart is good medicine." Jay Leno says, "You can't stay mad at somebody who makes you laugh." Bob Hope calls laughter an "instant vacation."

A few guidelines: Don't take yourself so seriously. Poke gentle fun at each other—but carefully. Steer clear of sensitive issues—weight, family, belief system. Laugh when you don't feel like laughing. And study your spouse's funny bone—find out what makes him or her laugh, and use that daily.

Once a Week . . .

Do something active you enjoy
One of the great gaps between husbands and wives is in their notions of emotional intimacy. To most women, intimacy means sharing secrets, talking over things, cuddling. But to men, intimacy means doing things together—gardening, hiking, going to a movie. The caricature of men in the wilderness, cold beer in hand, saying, "It doesn't get any better than this," is false. It's a lot better when a wife joins a husband in a shared activity they both enjoy.

That's the key—you've both got to enjoy it. If he likes tennis but she doesn't, don't go to the courts together. If she likes running but he hates it, don't pound the pavement as a pair. What do you enjoy doing together? Start by making a long list of activities, then circle those you both enjoy. Suggestions include antique collecting, racquetball, camping, canoeing, table games, puzzles, cooking, dancing, hiking, jogging, swimming, traveling, attending plays/concerts, golf, hitting the gym, taking a Sunday drive.

It doesn't have to be strenuous. Just find things you both like, and do at least one of them weekly.

Be encouraging
Never underestimate the power of a positive spouse. When your mate boosts your self-confidence, your options seem limitless. We all know we should try to avoid negative words to a spouse. But we need more than just the absence of the negative; we require a regular diet of the positive. Without it our spirit—and thus our marriage—withers.

A University of Alabama study found that successful families are made up of encouragers—of "diamond hunters," says researcher Nick Stinnett. "They dig through the rough looking for the good in each other." So praise your partner—in the little, routine things, and in the things that matter to him or her most. Focus on who your spouse is, not only on what he or she does.

Once a Month . . .

Clear the air
There's enough wear and tear on any given couple that a monthly meeting to keep things running smoothly should almost be mandatory. Set aside an hour or two to:

  • explore unfinished business, such as unpaid bills, whether the kids should be disciplined a certain way, or whether you're overextended by singing in the choir as well as teaching Sunday school
  • discuss ways to overcome loneliness; disclose your real feelings and have a heart-to-heart about what's going on with both of you
  • review the last month's purchases in your checkbook and on your credit card; are either or both of you ignoring a potential money problem?
  • discuss your emotional needs; if you're feeling neglected or if you're wanting to be admired, say so
  • admit to the things that made you angry in the last month; then release your vindictiveness, asking God to protect you both from the reemergence of angry feelings
  • protect each other from "hurry sickness," asking how you can slow down your pace next month
  • update each other on how well you know your spouse; ask what he or she would like you to know.

Get passionate
We're not saying you should make love only once a month. This isn't about limiting your sexual encounters to once every 30 days. Quite the opposite. Sex is critically important for a quality marriage.

As a married couple, you have the opportunity to make your love life better than you ever imagined by cultivating this healthy habit. But it takes intentional work. Talk about sex with your spouse. Ask what he or she likes. Assume your partner doesn't know how to satisfy you, and start from there.

Schedule a sex date. Yes, it sounds cold and unromantic. But in your date books, decide on a time when you can enjoy leisurely, passionate sex. You can obviously have spontaneous sex any time, but this once-a-month "meeting" is key to firing up your passion. Plan the where, when, how, and the atmosphere. Anticipation is half the fun. ÿ

Once a Year . . .

Review your top 10 highlights
Every New Year's Eve, we sit down and review the past 365 days to come up with a list of our top-10 highlights of the year. We've done this for five years, and these lists are a true treasure to us—a record of our positive recollections that we wouldn't trade for anything.

Doing this will help you avoid "if only" thinking. It will steer you from unproductive thinking and set you on a positive path sure to reward you with more blessings. It sets you up for succeeding in the annual ritual of charting your course for the next year. Which brings us to …

Chart your course for the coming year
Be proactive about where you'd like to be as a couple 12 months from now. Rather than moving through life simply reacting to outside forces, take charge and sit in the driver's seat.

This isn't an easy exercise. It requires hard work and initiative. It asks that you take responsibility for the condition of your marriage. It demands sacrifice to make your dreams a reality. But it also keeps you from the "Someday Syndrome." That single word—someday—denotes idle thinking rarely backed by action.

Ask God to guide you. Talk about what matters most to both of you, what you prize in each other. Write a mission statement, beginning with the words, "Our purpose is …" Consider what you'd like to change—more romance, fewer quarrels, more family meals together, less TV. Set specific goals. And make resolutions together, not just individually. That way you have a built-in support system in your spouse—a cheerleader in each other.

Les and Leslie Parrott, MP regular contributors and co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development (www.realrelationships.com) at Seattle Pacific University, live in Washington. Adapted from The Love List. © 2002 by Les and Leslie Parrott. Used by permission of Focus on the Family.





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