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Your relationship is the best it can be, right? Well, maybe. But if you're like lots of couples, you find it all too easy to put everything and everyone else first and take each other for granted. Not to worry, though -- you can easily get back on track by watching out for these mistakes. Try our strategies, then go to familycircle.com/marriage to let us know how they worked for you!
When he doesn't fix the leaky faucet for the third weekend in a row, you gripe about it to your best friend. Or your mother-in-law casually remarks, "How come you and Ben are fighting over your vacation?" and you know he's been spilling.
What's the problem? Some venting is fine, even necessary, but too much bad-mouthing puts a lot of negative energy out there. Do you really want the world to think your marriage is a disaster? And focusing on what you don't like makes you forget why you got together in the first place. "Complaining to others can lapse into portraying yourself as the helpless victim," says Mira Kirshenbaum, author of The Weekend Marriage: Abundant Love in a Time-Starved World (Harmony). "You're missing out on an opportunity to get your needs met by talking to him." Another big no-no: unloading to the kids. Don't expect them to act as sounding boards or worse, take sides.
Cleanup time: Put the privacy back in your marriage by holding off on sharing every detail. If your friends start dishing about their husbands' flaws, be sympathetic but don't add colorful anecdotes of your own -- unless he comes out looking like a winner. Likewise, at family gatherings, nix airing grievances and instead take every opportunity to praise each other openly.
He sighs and rolls his eyes when you're running late for a party. You shrug and say, "Sure, whatever" to things you don't really want to do, just to avoid confrontation.
What's the problem? As bad as it is to complain to outsiders, it's just as destructive to suffer in silence. Nothing gets accomplished when people play the martyr, and by withholding your true feelings, you also risk building up a wall of resentment that's tough to break down.
Cleanup time: The fix is simple -- say what you feel. "Sometimes one partner doesn't tell the other about a problem because she thinks nothing can ever be different, which in itself is a problem," says Geraldine Kerr, a marriage and family therapist in New Jersey. So set aside a time to talk when both of you are relaxed and open (in other words, not when one of you is nodding off over the 11 p.m. news or hurrying to get the groceries put away), and present the situation as a puzzle for the two of you to solve together, such as, "We don't seem to be able to leave on time in the mornings. Would it help if I let you use the bathroom first?"
For some things you can go with a subtler approach. Amy Sutherland, author of What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage (Random House), started praising her husband every time he made a small change she wanted, like putting a dirty shirt into the hamper instead of on the floor. Sure enough, he started working hard to earn the compliments. "It's not only more loving, but more effective," says Sutherland.
He complains repeatedly about the stacks of old paperbacks next to your already overstuffed book shelf. Each time, you retort, "Seriously, do you really need all seven of those cameras?"
What's the problem? More often than not, picking on our partner's possessions is code for, "I don't like this about you, so change already!" But it's unfair to demand that someone drop every quirk and live up to your expectations. "People are package deals," says Michele Weiner-Davis, a psychotherapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster). "There will be some things you love and some you don't. That's part of being married."
Cleanup time: Sometimes the stuff in question is genuinely important to one of you, in which case the other should just accept it as an annoying but minor part of the overall adventure. But if the two of you are constantly arguing over possessions that really aren't such a big deal, or if you're stuck because no one has the time to sort through and decide what to throw out, brainstorm solutions together. For instance, you could hold a garage sale and include some of your book collection and his extra cameras to start a fund for the flat-screen TV you've both been wanting.
You're both so busy with work, the kids, and your own interests that you can go for days without having a real conversation. And bedtime? That's strictly for sleeping, thanks.
What's the problem? When you eliminate quality time from your marriage, you risk getting too casual about your relationship -- or worse, assuming that you don't need to work on it anymore. Too much of this for too long and you could wake up one day and not even remember why you married each other. "People respond to detachment by pulling back themselves," says Kirshenbaum. "And things just go downhill."
Cleanup time: People also respond in kind to respect and niceness. So cut out distractions and use the time to reconnect. You can't miss your kids' games, but you can share a pizza in the stands or sneak away for a short walk. If you've fallen into the habit of zoning out in front of the TV every night, turn it off for at least 20 minutes and talk or do a sudoku puzzle together.
And if there's too much space between you in bed, work on getting back in touch -- literally. Experts agree that you may have to schedule sex, and even talk yourselves (and each other) into being interested. But it's totally worth it, because physical intimacy really can make the rest of your relationship stronger.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.