When you've been together as long as you two have, it's easy to let your relationship go into auto-pilot mode. But these four questions will help you get things out in the open—and back on track.

By By Jancee Dunn
Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

How often do you two check in with each other?” a marriage counselor once asked my husband and me. We were seeing him when our relationship hit a rough patch—OK, that’s putting it mildly. In our first show of unity that morning, Tom and I exchanged glances and smirked. Huh? Check in with each other? Um, how about never? We had full-time jobs, a daughter, a mountain of  bills and aging parents. Who had the time? Or energy?

Many, many therapy sessions later, we’ve finally realized something: A marriage is not an air plant—an entity that thrives despite utter inattention. Yet in the hustle of working, ferrying the kids to soccer and getting dinner on the table, it’s all too easy to neglect it. For days on end, your conversations tend to center around kids and logistics. (And those are the good days. On the others, it’s just arguing about how you differ on raising the kids and managing the logistics.)

But the danger is when you stop hearing each other, or even seeing each other. (One friend of mine, a mom of three, confessed with a laugh that she didn’t notice her husband had shaved off  his goatee for two days.) It’s easy to slip into the habit of putting your marriage at the very bottom of your priority list, and rationalize that you’ll get back to your husband once the kids are in college.

That’s a mistake. The U.S. divorce rate is declining for younger adults—but not for people 50 and up. Even if your marriage goes the distance, you don’t want to be one of those couples who return from dropping the kids off at college only to eye each other warily and wonder, Who the hell are you, again? So, yes: You do need to check in with each other. Often. Here, with the help of experts, are four conversations to have ASAP that will keep your relationship firmly on track.

What are  you interested in?

Often people can become so consumed with work or the kids that their identity narrows and they stop developing any outside interests. Don’t neglect them, says Chicago marriage therapist Anita Chlipala, author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love. “Not only are outside interests vital, but they can be downright sexy,” she says. “Having that space in your relationship can keep the passion alive.”

A few years ago, Tom took up long-distance cycling. This irritated the crap out of me at first, as he was literally pedaling away from his family. Then I saw how excited he got as he turned into Cycling Guy—attending races, researching gear, making new biking friends. I decided to throw myself into my own long-forsaken interests—gentler things I liked that did not require a helmet, such as baking and cultivating houseplants. The more outside interests you have, the more layers you add to your conversations—and it rekindles curiosity about each other. Banish the phrase “one of these days” from your vocabulary and train for that fun run! Meet a friend you haven’t seen in forever! Take that Aromatherapy for Beginners class you’ve been eyeing!

Similarly, it’s important to ask: What are we interested in as a couple? One easy way to boost your relationship is to try new things together, research shows. Several studies, including one just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that when couples did this, they felt “greater satisfaction” with each other—and had better sex. Couples in the study tackled activities like a new sport or a cultural festival, but it doesn’t need to be all heli-skiing and Tough Mudders. Maybe just try a new restaurant or finally replace the scraggly wall-to-wall in the master bedroom with laminate. “You can even start a two-person book club or watch a documentary together,” suggests Chlipala. And even if you try something together and it’s an unmitigated disaster—like the time Tom and I visited, on a whim, a spectacularly inaccurate fortune-teller—it will become one of your in-jokes.

How are we connecting on a daily basis?

Once the kids disappear into their bedrooms, it can be tempting to immediately retreat to your gizmos for scrolling and binge-watching. But experts say it’s crucial to devote even a little sliver of meaningful time to each other, daily, to maintain your bond. (And, no, binge-watching the same thing doesn’t quite count).

New York psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid Guy Winch, PhD, says to think of marriage as a third entity in your relationship—one that has its own needs—and ask: What are we doing for the relationship? How are we keeping it alive? “Couples should regard themselves as the ‘managers’ of their relationship and, as such, discuss the relationship regularly,” he says. Granted, flipping this switch can feel a little awkward at first, especially if the most probing question you’ve asked in recent memory is “Should I get the sharp or extra-sharp cheddar?”

Ramp up to it by explaining the third-entity idea to your spouse. Then you can brainstorm together on ways you can connect, says New York psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, PhD, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at Mount Sinai. “Daily connection doesn’t necessarily need to be an elaborate planned date, although that’s fun too,” she says. “It can look like a good-morning text wishing your partner a good day or an intentional kiss goodbye—meaning, actually locking lips for longer than a second—or holding hands as you fall asleep together.”

Robinson-Brown and her husband love to bond through music. “One time my husband and I were cleaning the house and we had a ‘playlist challenge,’ ” she says. “We went back and forth choosing songs from our own playlists that we thought topped the others. We ended up singing and dancing our way through cleaning and had a blast connecting.”

Tom and I, on the advice of yet another marriage therapist, now devote even just 10 minutes a day to talking about current events, books, vacation plans—anything except our kid’s soccer schedule or how we need to replenish our paper towel supply. (Not that I don’t like talking about restocking the pantry—I actually get a weirdly satisfying charge out of it. I just save it for another time.)

Do I feel like I’m being heard? Do you?

The most common factor leading to divorce wasn’t anything dramatic, like a torrid affair—it was simply “communication problems,” a 2013 survey of mental health professionals on YourTango.com found.

That’s no surprise to Chlipala. “Oh, I frequently see many problems in my practice that stem from a lack of connection,” she says. Lack of communication triggers fights, Chlipala adds, which decreases sex, increases anxiety, depression and negativity—and is just a general downer vibe for bystanders (such as your kids).

If one of you feels unheard, Robinson-Brown says, the conflict and distance that arise “will seem to be about surface-level petty things, when the person is really feeling hurt that their partner doesn’t acknowledge their feelings,” she says. And hearing requires more than just listening: “It means you’re actually reflecting, acknowledging and validating their concerns, even if you don’t necessarily agree. Validation does not mean agreement. It means, ‘I’ve heard you and I understand why you might feel that way.’ ”

Problems with tone—snappishness, sarcasm, name-calling, yelling—should also be addressed, Chlipala says. Left unchecked, being snarky and condescending can often harden into contempt—a huge no-no. One crucial way to show respect for each other is simply by using manners. This is mind-bogglingly simple, but consistently saying “thank you” is one of the most important things you can do for your marriage to go the distance, a 2015 University of Georgia study found. I had gotten into the habit of being polite to the UPS guy and our kid’s teachers but rude or indifferent to the guy I married. (Granted, my UPS guy doesn’t blindly leave the carton of milk out on the counter every morning until it turns to yogurt, but still.)

Are you happy with our sex life?

Paradoxically, it can be cringe-inducing to talk about your sex life with a long-term partner, especially if it’s on life support. But it must be done. (It seems like every couple knows a couple who haven’t had sex in a decade...and have never brought it up!) A 2018 study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that couples who are able to talk about their sex lives have better sex—because at least they care enough to discuss it. In long-term relationships, says Chlipala, “there can be a lot of unexpressed vulnerability that people can carry around for years. Being able to talk about it openly can truly deepen intimacy.”

In case you haven’t noticed, sexual needs change over time. “But these things can’t be illuminated if people are not talking explicitly about their sex life,” Robinson-Brown points out. “Now, this isn’t an easy conversation and often requires vulnerability and a safe space. Remember to come from a loving place, avoid judgment and use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.” (“I don’t feel attractive at my current weight” instead of  “You make me feel self-conscious about

my body.”)

And it actually doesn’t take that much to keep the flame alive. A 2015 survey of over 30,000 Americans found that couples who had sex once a week were happiest—and this applied whether they were newlyweds or long married. C’mon—once a week is doable, right? (We’re not talking about some Tantric session, either. No shame in a quickie during a TV time-out!) Also, Chlipala says that when you’re raising teens, who are coming into their own sexuality, it’s good for them to appreciate that their parents have healthy ideas about sex. “If parents don’t talk with their kids about sex, and explain that it’s healthy and important in a loving adult relationship,” she says, “kids can grow up with wrong ideas about sex—that it’s ‘dirty’ or wrong. So those conversations are very important.”

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