Rekindling the Romance
How to see past the everyday annoyances that chip away at strong marriages
Many marriages arrive at a point where at least one spouse wonders how to rekindle the romance. The happy moments that might come from bringing home roses, sharing a special meal, or giving an expensive gift — they fade. What’s left is sometimes a cold relationship. Husband and wife live together more like roommates than lovers.
Even a genius can have a difficult time rekindling a smoldering romance. Consider the famed physicist Albert Einstein. Einstein passionately wooed his first wife, Mileva. But after the passion that led to their 11-year marriage subsided, the marriage deteriorated. Einstein took a leave of absence in the summer of 1914.
Spouses should pause and look for the underlying bid for connection behind the words they hear.
Before returning to her and their two sons and their home in Berlin, Germany, Einstein compiled a list of conditions for Mileva to accept upon his return. Among the demands, he wrote: “You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons.” Also, he added he would not sit at home with her, go out or travel with her — and that she should not expect sexual intimacy with him.
She accepted his terms of reconciliation. Einstein did return. Then, a few months after his return, they decided to part for good. It’s said, as the train departed for Zurich, Switzerland, carrying his now-former wife and their boys, that Einstein wept as he stood waving goodbye from the station platform.
Researcher John Gottman has conducted over 40 years of research on marital relationships. Gottman is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research has concluded that repairing broken marriages is possible, and he’s identified the actions couples can take to rekindle romance when the flames of passion have been reduced to embers.
Gottman discovered it’s not the grand displays of love that ignite lasting passion. Romantic getaways and expensive jewelry might be exciting, but throwing logs on a smoldering flame will often put it out. It’s the small pieces of kindling, added carefully, one at a time, that provide the fuel for lasting love and passionate romance.
These kindling pieces are what Gottman calls the “micro-moments of love.” They are the inconspicuous moments of connection shared by couples in the mundane, daily grind of life. In these moments, couples turn toward each other, building trust and love. These positive moments make deposits into what Gottman has termed the relationship’s “emotional bank account.”
The couple makes deposits in their Emotional Bank Account each time they create positive moments in their relationship. For example, a husband can add to the account when he helps his wife make their bed, massages her aching shoulders, or empties the dishwasher with her. A wife can add to the account when she snuggles up next to her husband on the couch while he watches his favorite game on TV, listens to him talk about his day at work, or rubs his sore feet.
It’s not the grand displays of love that ignite lasting passion.
To simplify the process of rekindling romance, Gottman has identified thr areas of competence for spouses to develop through daily practice.
1.) Get the Hints
When a wife says to her husband something like, “You never hear what I’m saying when you have the game on,” many husbands will take offense. He might hit back with, “You always talk to me right in the middle of a play. Can’t you wait until a commercial?”
The husband in this scenario would have done better to recognize his wife’s comment as what Gottman calls a “bid for connection” — rather than criticism or a put-down. It was an opportunity for one of those micro-moments of love. Missing these cues is common among couples, but can be corrected. Spouses can learn to pause, and look for the underlying bid for connection behind the words they hear their partner saying. In these moments, the spouse receiving the bid can get the hint, choose to turn toward their partner, and make it a positive moment.
By turning toward a partner, a spouse makes a small deposit in the marriage’s Emotional Bank Account. The dividends are growing trust and love that fuel lasting romance. In the previous example, instead of impulsively defending himself, the husband could have muted the TV, turned to his wife, and said, “I’m sorry. You said something and I didn’t listen to you. Please say it again. I promise I’ll listen.”
If the husband has a negative balance in the Emotional Bank Account, his wife may refuse to repeat herself. He’ll need to turn toward his wife many more times, and perhaps change other behaviors before she can respond positively to his turning toward her. Doing this, he’ll add kindling to the fire. But severe cases of broken love and trust may require the help of a professional counselor.
Husbands aren’t the only ones not getting the hints. Wives can miss the bids for connection, too. He may say something like, “You’re going clothes shopping again? You just went last weekend.” Instead of saying it directly, he may be wishing she’d spend time with him doing something they both enjoy. To check for a bid for connection, she might ask, “Were you wishing we could do something together?”
2.) Cultivate Curiosity
After a few years of marriage, careers and parenting often get in the way of meaningful communication between spouses. Conversations may be reduced to brief exchanges of text messages and voicemails. In time, married couples can lose the intimacy that fuels romantic feelings as they lose touch with each other’s interests, desires, and goals.
Lasting romance depends on the mutual understanding that’s cultivated by curiosity. Gottman’s research has discovered the key to mutual understanding. It has three parts:
- Ask questions
- Remember the answers
- Keep asking questions
Gottman calls this process of constructing a deeper knowledge of your spouse “building love maps.” As couples share more questions and answers between them, the love maps take on more detail, color and texture. The knowledge gained and retained gives each partner more points at which they can have meaningful connections with each other.
We might assume we know all we need to about our spouse. We might assume that if something’s important, they’ll tell us. These are hazardous assumptions.
My wife’s interests, desires, and goals have changed over the years we’ve been together. So have mine. Sometimes we’re surprised to discover these changes in each other. The better we get at asking questions, the more surprises we find.
3.) Express Gratitude
Many people have a knack for seeing and magnifying the negative in any situation. These people tend to complain and criticize. Constant complaining and criticizing in a relationship will erode trust and love, and result in emotional bankruptcy.
We all have our faults. Most of us also have positive aspects to our personalities. Think of how it makes you feel when someone recognizes one of your positive attributes and makes a positive comment about it. Catch your spouse doing something you appreciate and say something positive about it to them. Expressing gratitude is a simple and effective way to do that.
When we sincerely thank our spouse for something they did, it triggers an emotional connection. A deposit is made in the relationship’s Emotional Bank Account. The trust and love needed for kindling romance grow.
Jon Beaty, a life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”