Six Strategies to Strengthen Your Loving Relationship

(9 minute read)

   On the eve of Valentines Day, I intended to post a piece I have been working on about love. As I have done with other writing, I sifted through my favorite books on the topic. I spent time narrowing down the research and words of wisdom into six simple points, since my goal on Grizzlybearma is to impart helpful information whenever possible. It was not difficult. There is no shortage of advice on love, relationships and marriage. I had no trouble coming up with six simple strategies. So why am I hesitating to post them? 

    For starters, it feels wrong for me to sit here and tell others the secret to success in married life. It does not make me an expert in the field of relationships to read books about love languages, the principles of of making marriage work, and rekindling romance in the empty nesting years. Researchers spend hours upon hours documenting findings of what contributes to strong unions. Licensed marriage therapists study for years to master the techniques that help couples repair and revive weakened or broken relationships. So on what authority can I impart advice to others?

    I am reminded of the quote by novelist Richard Bach, “We teach best what we need to learn.” Some of the “lessons” I have shared on this Grizzlybearma blog website are certainly in areas where I am challenged. To name a few: getting organizing with Mari Condo, dog obedience training, finding balance and, most recently, getting out of your comfort zone. Those are just the first few that come to mind where I wrote about the very thing that I strive to improve upon. It reminds me of what I’d tell my husband after he would hear me patiently working with one of our children to meticulously organize their binder (with the colored tabs) midway through the year when papers were crumpled and stuffed haphazardly. After the disheveled mess was restored to order and my child’s frazzled worry over lost homework papers had evaporated, I would smile at my husband and whisper, “Takes one to know one.” Why is it that we can help others with what we struggle with ourselves? Some of the best therapists I have seen in my lifetime have had their share of personal struggles. Maybe that is the key ingredient to teaching or guiding someone to success…you understand the challenges.

   I taught 2nd grade, 4th grade and 6th grade earlier in my career (before I worked as a stay at home mom). Unlike some of my fellow teachers who professed love for school at an early age,  I was not a strong student in elementary school. In fact, I struggled so much I had to go to a reading specialist that taught me techniques to focus and recall what I had read. Remember that color coded SRA program in sixth grade? The one where you grabbed a laminated card with a short boring reading excerpt followed by several comprehension questions? Advancement to the deeper colored levels only was possible with mastery of your current level. I hated SRAs. While I barely stayed afloat in the shallow waters of bright yellow and lime green, the smart kids pranced across the room to retrieve their scarlet, maroon, and midnight blue cards. So how did this 11 year old girl who only liked recess and after school drama class end up studying to be a teacher in college? I knew there were other little Carolyn’s out there like me. Ones that needed a bit more time, and a lot more confidence building activities from sympathetic teachers. I’d like to think that my stumbles and challenges granted me the humility needed to recognize our universal struggle to get things right.

   So on this eve of Valentine’s Day, even though I am not a trained expert in love, I would like to “teach what I need to learn.” The main emphasis is on communication, finding out what you need and what your partner needs. Whether its looking for more opportunities to laugh together or finding better wording in times of conflict, there are strategies for couples. In order to back up my credentials on the subject of marriage, I should share that my husband and I will be celebrating 35 years in July. Interestingly, the traditional 35th anniversary gift is an unusual one, coral. Critical for maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem of the ocean, coral is a symbol of protection. It takes a long time to form, and it is believed to heal and defend against harm. Almost forty years ago I fell in love with this cute boy I met in college. The wonderful thing about loving someone since I was 18 years old (barely an adult) is that I still feel like that same teenage girl loving that same college boy. Our marriage has gone through many stages, raising four children and moving multiple times. From DINKS (dual income no kids) to empty-nesters, and everything in between, our commitment to a loving marriage remains strong. Just as environmentalists work hard to keep coral reefs healthy, we have to work at our loving relationship. Even my parents who’ve been married over 60 years model the efforts it takes to stay connected with one another. They find the time to read poetry together on most afternoons on their back deck amidst the potted flowers and hummingbirds buzzing overhead. Isn’t that romantic? I doubt they had time for such moments when my three sisters and I were bouncing off the walls. Over the years, they found ways to connect. I remember them taking walks together through the neighborhood after dinner. It was probably the only peace they could get during those loud busy days with a house full of four teenage girls. 

   When I think back to the nights with our own four pajama clad kids jumping around the toys-strewn living room bursting with explosive energy from the evening bubble bath, I am wondering how my husband and I ever found quiet moments to nurture our relationship. The demands of kids, parents, pets, farm animals, work, life…all of it can drain the energy needed to give to one another. Then one day you both wake up and it is just the two of you (and two dogs, two cats, a horse and 15 chickens). The house is quiet. No Nickelodeon on the tv, no kids voicing Rescue Heroes from the playroom, no homework supervising of the older kids with the easily distracting younger siblings, no busy chit chat at the round dinner table of all four sharing what happened at school that day, no footsteps running upstairs rough housing when it is time to be winding down for the night, no requests for one more story when it is time for lights out. The house is quiet, except for a dog barking at the doorbell with a delivery from Amazon, or a song on Alexa or a tv show of our choosing. Before you start to feel all sad for us in our quiet empty nest…let me assure you that it is also pretty nice. 

    Empty nesting provides a couple the space to tend to their relationship with fewer distractions. Certainly for some couples that is when they discover a gap far too wide to close. But for many, this new chapter of life can be exciting, liking falling in love again with the cute boy at the fraternity party. Maybe it starts with watching Law & Order or Diners, Drive Ins & Dives with tv trays, but then one day you’re building a chicken coop together, and then one night going on a date to a brewery to hear live music. As much as I would like to share my six strategies I came up with, I have changed my mind. Instead, on the eve of the day chocolates, roses and sappy Hallmark cards will be exchanged, I would encourage you to take the time to reflect on your own love life. What is working? What is missing? How can you do better? Write down your thoughts in a notebook as if you were going to “teach what you need to learn.” Then hold onto it and look at it when you need reminding of the tending your love garden needs.

    My daughter got married last spring. She and her husband will soon celebrate their first wedding anniversary. The traditional first year anniversary gift is paper. It represents the blank canvas, symbolizing the beginning of their story. I love visualizing these anniversary symbols: paper for my daughter and her husband, coral for my husband and I, and diamond for my parents. The word diamond comes from the Greek word “adamas” which means unconquerable and enduring. So fitting for a 60th anniversary . Wherever your relationship falls on the continuum, work will be required and rest assured, your efforts will be rewarded.
Cheers to you and your sweetheart, may you discover your own six strategies!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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