A friend recently called to tell me that it had taken her a week to notice that her husband shaved off his beard. When she realized how different he looked without facial hair, she was distraught. "What does that say about our relationship that I didn't notice," she asked me. "Do I ever really look at him?" Even worse, in the week since he'd shaved, she remembered her husband continually asking her: "Do you notice anything different about me?" My friend would shake her head: "No, what?" Marriage counselor Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, says it's an old joke that long-term couples stop "seeing" each other, but it couldn't be more true. "Our partners stop existing as individuals to us," he says. Instead, we absorb that partner's identity into our own. "You stop noticing who they are. You see only what you want them to do for you. I often tell my clients: We have to treat our spouse as a gift, not a possession that we get to control." So forget writing your partner another to-do list. Today, take a few minutes to pause and think about how to make your spouse happy. Goulston says that unhappy couples are often surprised by just how much the small romantic gestures matter when building happy marriages. Here are some great tips for a happy marriage.
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1. Give the gift of your undivided attention. In a world where work demands responses to after-hour calls and emails, it's easy to end up half-listening to your partner. Or watching the latest episode of Homeland while the two of you tap away on your smartphones. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies marital happiness, says the best way to celebrate one another is in the simple act of unplugging. A couple may feel like they're spending time together because they're in the same room, but if they're existing in a separate sphere, there's little, if any, shared intimacy. Some couples may spend an entire Sunday afternoon without their phones, others may just put their phones away for an hour during dinner. No matter what you decide, intentionally tuning in may "be the best gift you can give," says Whitbourne.
2. Give a 20 second reunion hug when you return from work. Ashley Davis Bush, a psychotherapist and author of 75 Habits for a Healthy Marriage, says the simple act of giving our partner a hug is critical to feel connected to one another. For one, hugging your partner stimulates oxytocin, which sends happy vibes through both of you, but more importantly, an "intentional reunion" makes your partner feel appreciated. She recommends telling them how happy you are to see them, or how happy you are that they're home. "It's an incredible act of good will," Bush says. "They'll feel incredibly loved and valued, which will make them want to do the same for you."
3. Checking in as a morning ritual. While you're sipping coffee or grabbing a breakfast bar to eat on the way to work, ask your partner what their day has in store or wish them luck with the big project they're working on. It will take less than a minute, but it will remind your partner that you're thinking about them and that you're still interested, even after all of these years. Those little words will make your spouse happy. "Taking time and effort to understand the other person is the glue of intimacy," says Goulston.
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4. Surprise them with small romantic gestures. Maybe your spouse mentioned his back hurt -- why not bring home a gift certificate for a massage from the local salon? Is your wife complaining she needs a night out? Surprise her with dinner reservations at a new restaurant in town. Leave a note in his suitcase -- or send a sweet text during the day. One woman's husband keeps a running list on Amazon of things that remind him of her. When he wants to make his wife feel appreciated, he surprises her with a thoughtful package delivered to her doorstep. "It makes me feel like my husband is paying attention to almost everything I say -- and helps me overlook that he never throws his socks in the hamper," she jokes.
5. Pay your partner one compliment every day. The groundbreaking marriage researcher John Gottman discovered that happy couples had 20 positive interactions for every one negative. Give your relationship a boost of happiness with a simple compliment. Bush suggests that your compliment is very specific. Forget "That's a nice dress." How about: "That dress looks incredible on you.'" Says Bush: "A generic comment doesn't have as much power as a personal one."
6. Spend quality time on a low quantity budget. If you don't have much time together, Goulston says you can still foster intimacy by asking each other two questions daily: What was the best thing that happened to you today -- and what was the worst thing? He recommends not looking for solutions when listening to your spouse's answers, but to simply listen. Let them feel heard. Be conscious of your body language: Are you leafing through the mail as the two of you talk -- or are you leaning in to your spouse and repeating back what he or she says. If your body language says "I'm listening," it will make your partner feel instantly understood, he says.
7. Take a moment to reflect on why your marriage works. Whenever a friend gets divorced, it gives couples an opportunity to ponder why their own relationship has managed to endure. "Most likely the two of you know why your relationship is successful, so acknowledge those things," says Whitbourne. It can bring a couple closer when they take stock of just how good they are for another -- and just how much they appreciate each other after all of those years.
8. Go to bed at the same time. When you first fall in love, couples linger in bed in the morning and snuggle up to one another at night. While it's normal for some of that affection to wane, don't let it disappear. Goulston thinks it's important for couples to go to bed at the same time, even if that means that the night owl gets up after a few minutes and goes back downstairs to watch TV. "Lay down with your partner, rub his or her arm, kiss them goodnight," he says. "It's a statement, a way to say we're in this together."