Whether it’s anticipating a heartfelt text from your partner or learning about their sense of humor, the beginning of a new relationship is full of excitement. Sadly, the carefree and blissful days of the honeymoon phase don’t last forever. Once you get to know your significant other better and reality starts to creep in, that initial sense of novelty also wanes. Long-term relationships tend to bring an element of comfort and complacency into a union, so the passion will naturally fade over time. With other external factors, such as raising children or navigating career changes, sustaining that spark becomes an even more difficult feat.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to restore that zest from the early days of your partnership. Since relationship therapists help married couples strengthen their bond on a regular basis, we wanted to know if they practice what they preach. Here, we ask licensed marriage and family therapist Susan Hartman Brenizer to share how she keeps the spark alive in her marriage of more than 18 years. Follow her advice to reignite the passion in your own union.
Meet the Expert
Susan Hartman Brenizer is a New York licensed marriage and family therapist with more than 40 years of experience. She’s also a clinical fellow for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
For Brenizer, empathy is the foundation of her long-term marriage. Whether her husband is opening up about a workplace dilemma or a family conflict, Brenizer always listens to and validates his thoughts, feelings, and experiences rather than trying to fix the situation from her point of view. “Empathy and understanding always come before advice-giving,” she notes. This consistent practice breeds intimacy and bolsters their connection, so their relationship is always developing and deepening.
Every night, Brenizer and her husband set aside time to talk about how their day went—even if it’s just for 10 minutes while cooking dinner. By listening to what her partner has to say, the therapist continuously learns something new about him, which prevents stagnation in their relationship. This nighttime ritual is also a habitual date night, where the two of them spend uninterrupted time together. “We don’t need facts nor do we want the other to problem-solve for us,” she shares. “We just want to be heard by the person who is still the most important person in each of our lives.”
Accepting Ownership of Her Emotions
Instead of placing the blame on her husband and causing an argument to escalate, Brenizer takes responsibility for her emotions by using “I” statements. For instance, if her husband doesn't do the dishes one day, Brenizer will communicate how the situation personally affects her. Rather than saying, “You never help out” or “That was rude,” which only causes someone to shut down and get defensive, she’ll tell her husband, “I felt ignored and hurt when I asked you to do the dishes, but you didn’t chip in. Can you please remember to do your part the next time?” This invites her husband to contribute to a conversation, so they’re able to learn and grow from the situation. “If we do slip up and blame the other person, we are both fairly quick to say, ‘I am sorry. I didn’t mean to blame you,’” she adds.
Communicating Her Needs
Even after 18 years of marriage, Brenizer and her husband don’t always know what the other is thinking. “Couples cannot be mind readers,” she explains. “We can express a lot nonverbally, but mostly, we need to ask.” If there’s something that is bothering Brenizer, she speaks her mind rather than displaying passive-aggressive behavior. For example, if Brenizer is trying to read while her significant other is watching TV, she’ll ask him to turn it down in a polite and direct way. Not only does Brenizer get what she wants at that moment, but this communication style also creates a comfortable environment in which both parties feel comfortable to freely express themselves.
Affirming Her Relationship With Loving Gestures
As couples become more comfortable in their relationship, they might not feel as inclined to share romantic gestures with one another. However, Brenizer says she always makes an effort to demonstrate how she feels about her husband, whether it’s giving him a hug after a long day, telling him “I love you,” touching his shoulder while talking to him, or thanking him for taking out the trash. These verbal and nonverbal cues help her husband know that he is loved and appreciated.
When you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s easy to take the other person for granted. Plus, you probably assume the other person knows how you feel about them by now, but it’s always beneficial to remind them. Brenizer often pays her husband a compliment, which helps him feel seen, valued, and loved—and contributes to the longevity of their relationship. “When my husband is dressed for trial, I almost always say, ‘Wow, you look great,’” she shares. “And I know he appreciates it.”
Refraining from Passing Judgment
On the other hand, since Brenizer focuses a lot of energy on building her partner up, she makes sure to never tear him down. In her marriage, certain phrases, such as “You are wrong” or “That is ridiculous” are off limits because they cause pain and impede trust. “We do feel safe in this marriage because we both trust the other to not invalidate us,” she mentions. “We both know how much one criticism or harsh judgment can hurt.”
Dividing Household Tasks
Since marriage is a partnership, Brenizer and her husband both do their fair share around the house, from cooking to cleaning. “If I am working a bit late, it is so calming to hear my husband in the kitchen starting dinner,” she says. “As well, on weekends, I know the foods he loves, so I spend time making these dishes.” Dividing up household chores reduces stress and resentment and prioritizes an equal union, so as a result, their relationship flourishes.
Resolving Conflict With Conversation
Although Brenizer and her husband have a healthy and happy marriage, conflict is an inevitable and normal part of all relationships. Rather than bottling up hurt feelings or letting the argument boil over, the couple initiates a conversation to patch up the disagreement, so they can move on. They’re able to settle the situation by calmly communicating their perspective and listening, not yelling or blaming. “We both cherish calm evenings together, so anything left unsaid needs to be said and cleared away as soon as we are back together at the end of the day,” Brenizer explains. “We do not allow the residues of conflict to linger.”
Maintaining Her Independence
At the end of the day, no relationship can thrive if neither party has a life outside of the union. As much as Brenizer and her husband love spending time together, they also maintain their independence, which prevents codependency and increases relationship satisfaction. “We also each have hobbies and friends that do not involve the other person, and we encourage this in the other,” she notes. “We are both happier when we can truly lead a full life, then come together later.”