Break your bad relationship habits
New start 2013
The New Year can kick-start a lot of worthy projects, from clearing out your inbox to liberating your fridge of wait-is-that-cheesecake? But we can all agree that love is more important than any overdue expense report. "Even the strongest relationships can do with a little tidy-up now and then," Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. and author of the upcoming book Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, wisely points out. And since nobody has time for a full-on couples retreat (good luck convincing your guy to do one of those anyway), we've narrowed it down to one week and nine no-biggie steps. The reward? Happiness.
Monday: swap chores
You know the way you despise the dinner dishes? Well, that's probably the way your husband feels about walking the dog, so make a trade and take on his busywork. Turns out, people in strong relationships spend time thinking about how to make life easier for each other.
Bing: Maintaining love
"A single thoughtful act sets the tone for more positive interactions," says Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a marriage and family therapist and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage. "It's that 'I've got your back, babe' attitude that gets couples through tough times."
Tuesday: Plan your weekend in advance
But the week's barely started, you say. Exactly! "Pre-planning ensures that your to-do list won't hijack the whole weekend," says time-organizing expert Julie Morgenstern. Here's how to master errands: Write down what has to get done. Decide what you can do together and what you'll do solo, and make sure to set a hard deadline, so you'll know when the fun starts. Then plan date night! Ask your partner if there's a movie or a new restaurant or neighborhood he's been wanting to check out. "Get out of your routine--couples feel more alive when they try new experiences together," Weber says. Another plus? The anticipation will send a shot of excitement through your week.
Video: Go dancing and wine tasting
Wednesday: Start early
Set the alarm ahead 30 minutes, and before you even think about checking your email, focus on the person next to you.
If you two get frisky, great. Or just have coffee together, preferably snuggled in bed. "Every day, couples need touch and talk--time that is just for and about them," O'Neill says, and doing it first thing guarantees it doesn't get shortchanged.
No one is denying the appeal of Instagram or the cat-playing-the-piano video your colleague sent around. But you can't be plugged in and connected with your partner at the same time (unless you're both laughing at that cat). "With so many competing demands, couples often unintentionally tune one another out," Weber says. Instead, embrace your inner Luddite by turning off the machines and listening to each other. Just wait until you see how awesome your guy looks without the eerie blue glow from your laptop screen.
Friday: Let a grudge go -- for good
If there's anything that can clog the arteries of an otherwise happy coupling, it's resentment. And we don't mean get-your-socks-off-the-floor annoyances; we're talking about major disappointments or unresolved fights. "Often these incidents represent a important value, like trust, safety, teamwork, or inclusion," says Robert Navarra, Psy.D., a therapist who works with the Gottman Relationship Institute, where researchers study couples and marriages. Taking the steps to really let a grudge go will do your relationship a world of good. Achieve this mini miracle by "focusing on your feelings, without blaming your partner. Explain what the issue represents and means to you," Navarra says. "Then, ask for understanding." In return, promise not to bring the matter up again. Afterward, reward him by sharing one thing you really appreciate about him. "Relationships that stay happy in the long haul have a consistent history of positivity."
Saturday morning: Give each other some space
What's that strange sound? Why, it's the delicious silence of being alone in your house. Ask him to head out for breakfast with the kids or run some errands so you can take at least 60 minutes for yourself. Will you marinate in the world's longest shower? Zumba your butt off? Or just stare at the ceiling with a blissed-out look on your face? We don't care! Just "be your own best caretaker," says Weber. "Looking out for yourself makes you a better partner." Plus, she says, "feeling good draws people to you." Just be sure to return the favor after your time's up.
Saturday evening: Go on your date...and let him be a blabbermouth
There's a reason date night is so essential: It reminds you why the person you fell in love with is actually lovable. While you're out together, "listen attentively," Weber says. "Hang on his every word. Couples are happier and closer when they feel truly heard." Chances are your guy will be able to completely relax when he realizes he's got your full attention. He'll also be more likely to ask what's up with you and not zone out when you answer.
Sunday morning: Give a little bit.
Instead of lounging with the paper, use this morning to do something impactful together, like volunteering, mentoring, or cooking dinner for a less mobile neighbor. "Making a contribution helps couples build a healthy shared identity and feel a strong tie to each other," Weber explains. "By doing something meaningful, they also feel increased well-being about their relationship." Studies also show that giving back will leave you feeling more positive about the future--which leads to happy thoughts about each other.
Sunday evening: Play "do you remember when...?"
Set aside some time to go through photos together. The medium doesn't really matter: an old album, your wedding video, even vacation pics from your Facebook feed. The point is to replay the good times. When you've gotten through the G-rated look-backs, advance to the NC-17 stuff--share your favorite memory of sex with him. Now do it one better, and call it a night.