The holidays are filled all kinds of things that compete for your attention. Between various family members, schedules, gift giving (and purchasing), and running around to get things tied up at work before the new year, our marriage often finds a last place seat on the priority list. Thankfully, we here at Cognitive Behavior Institute are a couple steps ahead of you and have your back. Consider these 7 ways of strengthening your marriage in the new year to get the 20’s started off right!

1. Set some time aside to get to know your partner. The truth is that we are constantly changing a growing. The person sitting in front of you now is not the same person you married 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, or 3 months ago. Consider asking your partner open ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”). For example, “What were your three favorite moments of the holidays and why?”, “What were your three LEAST favorite moments?”, “How has your/our family changed in your eyes over the years?”, or “How have you been feeling about your work lately?” Asking these types of questions communicate a care and curiosity to your partner that always feels good. Remember not to judge your partner’s thoughts or feelings or try to solve any problem that they express outright. The primary goal is to understand your partner more deeply.

2. Share your fondness for your partner. Take a moment to consider what you like and admire about your partner. Then, share it with them! It could be simple like “thanks for telling me that you love me before you leave for work.” It could be more complex: “I always appreciate how important it is to you that the kids have a good time when we’re with family. I can see how hard you work for things to go well”. We can often take our marriage for granted because the vows have been made. Voicing your appreciation for your partner helps them know that you don’t take them for granted and that you notice who they are and feel grateful for how they add value to your life.

3. Pay attention! Often times, when our partner says something to us, it is a bid for connection. In other words, they send us an invitation to engage. A complaint about the faulty heat in the car is an invitation to commiserate and make promises to keep each other warm at home. A statement about certain home chores is an opportunity to reestablish that “we’re in this together”. Turn toward your partner in these moments to communicate “I’m here with you”. Look them in the eyes and turn your shoulders in their direction. These nonverbal cues often communicate more than words.

4. Soften your start up. Conflict is an important part of being in a relationship. Managed well, it helps us build trust and deepen our connection with our partner. When we have a complaint, it is all too easy to blast away about something we dislike or that makes us mad. Unfortunately, no one in the history of marriage has been opened to compromise by being criticized about how they are failing and how it’s all their fault. My question for you is this: What is your end game? Is it to have something changed? Consider, then, how your partner needs to hear the feedback so that they can really understand where you’re coming from. Rather than “You always take your mother’s side when we are over there. When will you ever have my back?”, try “You know, honey, it feels really supportive to me to know that you have my back on our parenting decisions. Would you mind arguing on my behalf or, maybe, changing the subject when your mom brings it up?” This isn’t a guarantee that you get what you want. However, it is a promise that you have a much greater shot if your partner feels respected and cared about when you bring up a prickly topic.

5. Build rituals of connection. In The Science of Kissing, Sheril Kirsenbaum references a German study which showed that men who were kissed by their wives before they left for work in the morning lived 5 years longer than men that did not. These were not pecks on the cheek but lingering, 6 second long embraces, or what John Gottman, PhD, calls “a kiss worth coming home to”. Of course, it was not the kiss that extended the lives of these men. Rather, they were indications that these couples had ways to repeatedly slow down and connect throughout the days, weeks, and years of their lives together. A ritual is something we can count on repeatedly throughout time. Consider choosing 3 new rituals you would like to start, have your partner do the same, and then share them with each other and choose a couple to implement. Would you like do breakfast on Saturday mornings, an annual anniversary trip to a secluded location, a kiss before bed, or a daily post-dinner tea and time to catch up?

6. Create shared meaning together. Take the transition into the new year as an opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been personally and as a couple and where you’d like to go. What are your goals? How do you feel that you’ve been a good partner? Where do you know you could have been better? Do you like where you’re living? Do you like what you’re doing for work? How do you want household roles to be the same or different? Happy couples have a sense of “we” alongside their “you” and “me”. Help each other live the life you’ve been dreaming of whether that means occasionally volunteering your time to a cause you find compelling or traveling the world together. Ask your partner how you can help fulfill these experiences that give life meaning.

7. Consider couples therapy. Thanks to over 45 years of rigorous clinical research, we know what makes relationships crumble or flourish. Whether you feel your marriage hanging precariously on the edge, are simply interested in bringing more meaning, adventure, romance, and closeness to your happy relationship, or somewhere in the middle, we’re here to help. We have some of the most highly certified and experienced clinicians in the area trained in helping your marriage take flight.

For ideas about how to apply the suggestions outlined above, download the Gottman Card Decks app on your smart phone. The app contains open ended questions, rituals of connection, words of appreciation, and more.

Alexander Antonucci, LPC