Too tired to even touch hands, my husband, Bernie, and I crawled into bed. It was the end of a day in which we’d hardly spoken to each other, except to ask where things were or say where we were going—or had been. Our house had been full of guests for several weeks. To make matters worse, we’d just moved in and there were unpacked cardboard boxes all over the floor throughout the house.
In fact, our bed was an inflatable air-mattress and our bedroom the laundry. We couldn’t find our clothes! We both had urgent work deadlines, people to feed, children to care for, walls to paint and there were all kinds of important things we couldn’t find. We’d had no time or space to talk to each other, even though some serious things were happening in our lives. We felt like we were hurtling through space, trying to catch each other’s hands before our different trajectories tore us apart. But we barely had the energy to stretch out an arm.
It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. We wanted to care for each other, but the things that were most important to us as a couple were being trodden underfoot by the heavy boots of the urgent and the essential. We both felt alone. When we talked, it was just about the urgent and essential things. We became frustrated and irritable. Even simple conversations left us feeling hurt and unsupported.
Relationships need to be fed and nurtured regularly. They need hugs and soothing words, and sometimes just a little fun. When all the positive emotions are starved out of a relationship, it quickly fails to thrive. And that was happening to us!
Today, many couples struggle to find the time—or make the time—to nurture their relationship. Work, overtime, long commutes, parenting, helping with homework, housework, cultivating the garden, volunteering at church, caring for relatives, study and even just answering emails—these are all important, but they eat away into our couple time, leaving us too tired to feel anything but exhaustion, let alone love.
It’s all too easy to starve a loving relationship. For me, the less connected I feel, the more irritable and frustrated I become. So, when Bernie and I do talk, we easily end up arguing and so feel even further apart. But we’ve also found creative ways to nurture our relationship on the run!
Four foods for a healthy relationship
One such busy husband and wife I know have learned to nourish their relationship using four relational “food groups.”
- They do kind and helpful things for each other;
- They talk about their feelings, fears, joys and hopes;
- They work together on shared projects;
- And they exchange thoughtful gifts.
Even though both of these people were super busy, they decided to try one thing from each of the first two groups once or twice every day for at least five minutes; one thing from group three every week; and one from group four at least once a month.
- They chose to be kind and helpful by spending five minutes a day doing something on the other person’s to-do list, as this wouldn’t take up much extra time in their own day.
- They sat down for five minutes after they came home from work and talked about the high and low points in their day. They shared any worries, fears or concerns, and at least one thing they hoped to achieve in the next few days or weeks.
- They bought a piece of used furniture they both loved and together they worked at renovating it for at least half an hour a week.
- They found a gift to give the other once a month—with a $10 limit.
Here are some plans that have worked for other couples:
Setting aside regular times to share their love might not seem like the most romantic plan, but it was the best thing for Sally and Joe. They planned three such appointments a week.
- On Sunday evenings, after their children are asleep, they make hot chocolate and have a team meeting. They start by saying three things their partner said or did during the previous week that they especially appreciated. Then they coordinate their schedules and make specific plans for each day of the week ahead. They talk about any worries and concerns they have. Then they hold hands and pray for each other. Sometimes they just pray silently.
- On Tuesdays, they eat lunch together. They usually go to the same restaurant, because it saves having to choose a new place each time. It gives them some time to just focus on each other.
- On Thursdays, Joe helps cook the evening meal, clean up the kitchen and get the children ready for bed.
All this might sound boring and predictable, but Sally says that “regular appointments are easier for us to protect. It’s our way of prioritising our relationship and caring for each other. We still try to find time for spontaneous fun, but these regular appointments keep us connected and happy.”
Peter Fraenkel, a couple’s therapist in New York, noticed that many of those he counselled were too tired, too busy and too stressed to work on their relationship. So, he developed a simple strategy. He asked them to list all the caring and fun ways they could use to connect with each other in 60 seconds or less, including some things they could do when they were apart. Following are some ideas:
- a hug or kiss
- sending an email
- sending a free e-card
- sharing a cupcake or a piece of fruit
- sending a photo of yourself
- calling to say, “I love you,” or “I’m thinking of you” in the middle of the day
- sharing a joke or cartoon
- stroking the other’s hair
- holding hands
- making the other their favourite drink
- praying for each other
- watching the sun set or the moon rise together
- reading a love poem
- leaving a message in the other person’s pocket, car or purse
- buying the other’s favourite treat and giving it as a gift
- smelling a flower in a garden
- writing a love message on the other’s back with a finger
- sharing a secret sign that means “You’re special! I love you!”
Fraenkel encourages couples to aim for at least 10 such 60-second connections a day, including one or two in the morning, such as a cup of tea and a kiss or a compliment; another one as they say goodbye; several more during the day—one when they both come home and the rest throughout the evening.
These moments become really significant because they keep saying, “I care,” “I’m thinking about you,” “I love you,” and “I miss you and I want to be with you.”
These brief encounters strengthen the sense of caring in the relationship and thread it through the whole day.
Try weaving some simple couple rituals into your daily routine. It’s easier to make them happen if they’re short, simple things you can do every day without a lot of effort.
Bernie and I have a “chocolate moment.” Around 10 in the evening, one of us will say, “I think it’s time for our ‘chocolate moment’!”
Then we go to the kitchen, take down a basket full of our favourite chocolates and enjoy one or two together. We pause and connect with a smile. We let the chocolate melt slowly in our mouths, seeing how long we can make it last and we feel the love we share.
What tiny ritual could you and your spouse share that will grow your relationship?
Following are some things you can do when you have a little extra time on your hands:
- Have a very long kiss.
- Rub your spouse’s shoulders while they are working at the computer.
- Pour a drink and tell your partner the lowest and highest moments of your day.
- Blow a whole pot of children’s bubbles together.
- Make a list of 20 things you appreciate about your spouse and read it to them.
- Put on some music and sing together.
- Take a funny photo of yourselves.
- Write a love letter.
- Play hide-and-seek.
Karen Holford is a family therapist with a background in occupational therapy and developmental psychology. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished here with permission.