Sex & Relationships

The marriage check-up: Six ways to revitalize your relationship

Couples therapist Ashley Howe shares her tips on how to ease the stress and improve communication.

Happy couple outside

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What’s the state of your union? Is it in perfect health and raring to take on the next life hurdle with gusto? Or is it feeling a bit tired, overwhelmed by the marathon stresses of joining two lives into one?

Checking the vital signs of your relationship regularly can only serve its overall well-being — it may also ensure that your relationship’s most essential working parts don’t inflame, infect, or god forbid, flat line unexpectedly.

Here are six tips on how to self-administer a marital checkup without going into cardiac arrest.

1. Know your symptoms
Before you sit down with your partner and tell them how you’re feeling, take some time alone to sort through your emotions, says Toronto-based therapist, Ashley Howe, who also acts as the resident relationships expert for The Marilyn Denis Show.

Sometimes we don’t really know the deeper reasons for why our spouse’s spending habits drive us to distraction.

“Some people grew up with no money and when their partner overspends, they literally feel their security is threatened,” explains Howe.

Spend a few minutes figuring out why you feel the way you do — even acknowledging its irrationality, if need be — so that when you speak to your spouse you’re not telling them what they’re doing wrong but rather are telling them how you feel, says Howe.

“Even if you think they did this to you, own how you feel about it,” she advises.

2. Keep the environment light
There’s no need for a formal bedside manner during a checkup, in fact, says Howe, it’s a better idea to keep the tone light and intimate rather than overly serious, which can scare someone.

She suggests incorporating a checkup component into a weekly or monthly date night, that way couples start to become more used to sharing potentially upsetting feelings in a more casual setting. Over the long term, that more consistent and calm approach to dealing with conflict may reduce the number of kitchen-based screaming matches.

3. Keep your complaints concise
Rather than unload a year’s worth of complaints in every area of your relationship, focus on one item on your first go-round. “Take one item, one contentious issue at a time,” says Howe. “It’s too overwhelming to go through one long list.”

Choose one topic — sex, intimacy, romance, future goals, housework, finances — and do it justice.

4. Make space for gratitude
All too often we forget to tell our partners how much we love them and to honour the things they do to make our lives richer. So ensure your checkup is balanced by “celebratory and congratulatory talk.”

Howe says it’s “important to start the conversation with one thing you really like about your partner — one thing they’re doing really well already.” The way you begin a checkup conversation may make all the difference to its outcome, she says.

“If you start out with this criticism and attack on the person, it will end badly. If you start the conversation in a very unattacking way it will most likely be received better and the conversation will proceed completely different.”

5. Unplug your ears
Your mouth gets you into trouble; your ears may just save you. Use them, says Howe, who says one of the most important ground rules for a smart checkup is giving your partner your full attention.

“The biggest problems in relationships come from people not feeling heard,” says Howe.

Listening well also means no interrupting. “Let the person tell you what’s going on for them. Let them start and finish.”

One listening tip from Howe: don’t spend your quiet time internally composing your counter-argument, which once shared will only reveal the fact that you’re weren’t really paying attention.

“Most of us spend half of our listening time thinking of a response,” she says. Don’t do that. Just listen.

6. ‘Sorry’ is an instant pain reliever
I’m sorry. Perhaps no other two words, when used together, have such an instant restorative affect on the emotional suffering of the person you love most than I’m sorry.

After your partner unburdens themselves of their pain or upset, say ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I didn’t know you felt like that’ to your partner and watch their defenses fall. Add ‘What can I do to make it better’ and you’ve just applied a metaphorical tourniquet to your partner’s most painful wound.

“That is repair work,” says Howe. “People need to hear more ‘I’m sorry’ in their relationships.”

The effect of the dose may surprise you. “It’s like instant aspirin,” confirms Howe. Even more interesting, very often the act of saying I’m sorry reduces the intensity of the conflict and energizes that all-too-pivotal organ, the heart.

What communication tips do you use in your relationship? Get more relationship fixes here.