The Lazy Person's Guide to Relationships
Or, how to hand yourself some easy wins at home.
Whenever couples who’ve been married for years are asked the secret of their success, they invariably reply: you have to work at things. But shouldn’t our relationships be a source of joy rather than something to knuckle down under?
The other problem with working on a relationship is that it suggests making big changes - like setting up a weekly date night, going on a second honeymoon or making big sacrifices (for example giving up a friend who your partner dislikes or cutting back on a hobby that eats into family time.)
Thirty-plus years as a marital therapist have shown me that these big changes seldom deliver the big benefits that couples desire.
Date night might work a few times but the logistics and expense of babysitters quickly become hard work; the glow of the second honeymoon wears off almost as soon as you re-enter a chaotic home full of tired children; and people rather quickly start to resent big sacrifices like ending friendships.
Worse still, when the big effort changes very little, a couple begin to believe their relationship is doomed.
Equally problematic, though, is the choice to do nothing. Then, there’s the real danger of slipping into taking for each other for granted, and nobody wants that either.
Of course, we aren’t really “lazy” - from what I can see, everyone is stressed, busy and pulled in a hundred different directions. But we can certainly benefit from some realistic, fun, simple ideas to connect with our partner on a regular and sustainable basis.
So, here are my best ideas for some quick and meaningful relationship wins - pick your favourite to try this week, and see how it goes!
Ten minutes chatting over your day.
Instead of big dramatic gestures- which are hard to repeat- try to set up good relationship habits. The most important one is checking in with each other when you return home: NOT immediately starting supper or checking emails.
A few moments sharing the highs and the lows of the day prevents misunderstandings - like their bad mood being down to you rather than their demanding boss - and ruining the whole evening together.
The more details in your daily chat, the more involved you become in each other’s triumphs and disasters. Some couples find it hard to share, after years of broad brushstrokes of ‘fine’ or ‘same old thing’. So remember small anecdotes and snippets of gossip about friends and save them up for the evening.
A good tip is to sit down and eat together - without the TV on - as this gives enough time together for the natural rhythms of conversation to kick in.
Watch each other’s favourite TV show.
Instead of catching up on chores, watching another channel in another room or going online, you commit to Better Call Saul (even though it stresses you out) and your partner agrees to Ted Lasso (even though they find it sickly sweet).
This will not only provide a fresh window into each other and something new to discuss but shows that you are truly interested in each other - even the parts that you don’t share in common.
What’s more, we have a real animal need to be close to another human being, and snuggling up together on the sofa is not only a good way to unwind, but shows that you can be intimate without it necessarily leading to sex.
Kiss with your eyes open.
Actually looking at each other when you kiss is not only incredibly intimate but can be the gateway to more erotic lovemaking.
Perhaps that’s why this is the most controversial of my ideas. Some couples find the idea silly or feel uncomfortable looking at each other. They believe it is more ‘romantic’ to keep their eyes closed, but this makes us concentrate on the sensation rather the person and drift off into fantasy.
When couples arrive in my office with one partner complaining ‘you’re not the person I thought you were’, I can almost guarantee that they have been kissing with their eyes closed.
So, persevere, overcome the awkwardness, and become more aware of both your partner and yourself, and take lovemaking to a whole new level.
Another associated idea is to mix up your kissing style: try butterfly kisses (very light and not just on the mouth but all over your partner’s face) nibbling kisses (gentle bites on the lips or other sensual areas like the ears) or breathy languid kisses tasting and smelling each other’s body.
Buy them something small but fun.
It could be a favourite bar of chocolate, a novelty keyring or a bag of their favourite coffee. A present shows that you are thinking about your partner even when you’re not together.
Unlike birthdays and Christmas, when it is tempting to buy presents our partner ‘needs’ - like clothes we think make them look good or tools for jobs we’d like done around the house - these gifts are pure fun or indulgence.
There is a second advantage: by modelling the sort of spontaneous giving that you’d like - where flowers are not just for birthdays but ‘because I saw these and thought of you’ - you are encouraging your partner to adopt the same behaviour.
Share a bath.
There are few things better for unwinding after a long hard day than a soak in the bath, but instead of making it a solitary pursuit, invite your partner along.
I counselled one couple who bathed together every day - as somewhere to talk without the kids interrupting.
A twist on this idea, which is always popular with my clients, is bringing along a large bowl of ice-cream and one spoon.It is very sensual to feed each other something cold in a hot bath.
Sharing a bath, and washing each other’s hair, will also help you and your partner to feel comfortable being naked together, and so improves overall intimacy.
Go to bed at the same time or enjoy a lie-in at the weekend together.
If you and your partner’s body clocks are on different timezones, and you’re seldom awake in bed together, the chances of making love are close to zero.
So make a conscious choice to communicate better over bedtimes. Instead of saying‘I’m going up now’ and hoping that your partner will follow, invite them. Instead of watching any old rubbish on TV, until you’re tired enough to sleep, come upstairs for a cuddle and drift off in each others arms.
Skip jobs like loading the washing machine or folding the laundry before going upstairs and you won’t miss the window when your partner is still awake.
If you have radically different bedtimes, try finding a compromise where, for example, he goes up a little earlier and you stay up a little longer and meet in the middle.
Conversely, give yourself a treat, let the children look after themselves next Sunday morning, and enjoy a lie-in together.
Give in with good grace.
Living with someone inevitably means having to compromise and do things that we’d rather not. Next time you have to go visit their critical mother, attend their tedious work-do, or hold a piece of wood that they’re sawing through, don’t just grit your teeth, but look for the hidden pleasures.
Even if you have to act as if you’re enjoying yourself, after a while you will probably start to believe it. Not only will your partner be grateful but they’ll go the extra mile for you in return.
Look at each other more.
When they’re talking, couples in love spend seventy-five percent of their time looking at each other. Most settled couples are too busy buttoning up their children’s coats or making sandwiches to make eye-contact - even when communicating something important.
In fact, they only look at each other for thirty to sixty percent of the time they’re conversing, and so miss the subtleties of body-language and misinterpret each other’s tone of voice. At the very least, make a commitment to be in the same room rather than shouting up the stairs.
Echo each other.
This is the simplest and most effective way of improving communication. When they’ve finished telling you something, repeat back the last thing they said. For example: “so you just stood there?”.
This might seem weird, but it shows them that they have your full attention. It also encourages them to open up and tell you more.
The final benefit of echoing back is that it takes the pressure off you to think up a searching question.
Although this strategy might feel a little artificial at first, persevere and it will soon become second nature.
Report your negative feelings rather than show them.
These days, we are forever being told to express our feelings. However, when it comes to anger, getting things off your chest can often pump up your emotions rather than reduce them.
Worse still, having a rant will either encourage your partner to fight back - and escalate matters further -or to sulk, switch off or walk away (which means nothing ever gets sorted).
So instead of showing your feelings, try reporting them instead. By this Imean: ‘I felt angry when you didn’t answer me’ or ‘I was disappointed when you were late’ rather than snapping, sniping or shouting.
Your partner will probably apologise or offer an explanation, and the two of you can have a civilised discussion about how to do things differently.
In other news, I recently recorded my first The Meaningful Life podcast episode on friendship.
Those of us with wonderful close friends (the kind with whom you can share coffee and cake or a bit of juicy gossip, and who chip in with hot meals and sympathy when times are bad) are so very lucky. In fact, research seems to show that these kinds of loving friendships even make us healthier.
But what do you do when you find yourself lonely and feel like you’ve forgotten how to make friends? Or when friends cross boundaries and you wonder about their role in your life? I talked through all these questions with Dr Suzanne Degges-White, author of Toxic Friendships and Friends Forever. You can find our conversation here.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (email@example.com) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.