Work the magic back into your relationship

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, February 2007.

Yes, Valentine’s Day, the day to recognize our loved ones, will be here soon. Even if you don’t do much to celebrate the day, the annual media blitz from greeting-card companies and florists ensures you will be thinking about the importance of your spouse or partner.

Still, this relationship is a central part of your life that deserves attention. Most of us know this, but don’t do enough about it. We get caught in the daily grind, where just making it through the day seems to take all our energy. So, taking time for dates and being romantic can feel like too much effort. Given this exhaustion factor, what can you do to breathe more life into your relationship?

To begin with, how much time each week (that’s a whopping 168 hours) are you willing to dedicate to your relationship to keep it thriving? 25% of your time? How about 10%? Well, John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, contends that you can maintain a healthy relationship by earnestly giving just 3% of your time to it. That amounts to just 5 hours a week.

Gottman found that couples whose relationships continued to improve after a couples workshop gave 5 hours of time each week to each other. This “magic five hours,” as Gottman calls it, included certain specific activities. He suggests that other couples also include these activities in their week to maintain and enhance their relationships. His suggestions make sense; and they include each partner doing the following:

Morning farewells: Learn at least one interesting thing that your partner has planned for the day. Follow up later by asking your partner about this. (2 minutes a day x 5 working days= 10 minutes a week)
Stress-reducing and catch-up conversations: Take 20 minutes each day to talk about your day. Your partner’s role is to genuinely listen and be supportive. When it is your turn to listen, make sure you fully understand the situation and demonstrate this understanding before you give any advice. (20 minutes a day x 5 days= 1hr 40 minutes a week)
Admiration and appreciation: Genuinely communicate admiration and appreciation toward your partner. For example, you can simply say thank you for cleaning up after you when you had to run out of the house for something. Or, you can toast your spouse for completing a school project while balancing family life. (5 minutes a day x 7 days= 35 minutes a week)
Affection: Kiss, hug, and touch your partner. Lovingly kiss when you see each other at the end of the day and each night before you go to bed (not just a quick peck!). If the “touchy feely” element of your relationship is long dormant, start slowly and work your way up. (5 minutes a day x 7 days= 35 minutes a week)
Learning about your partner’s inner world: It’s important to keep updated about your partner’s likes, dislikes, interests, values, etc. Make a date. Ask questions about what is important to your partner (i.e. How are things going with your friend Peggy?, Are you still thinking about landscaping the front yard?). Or, learn more about your partner’s thoughts about a problem you are having in the marriage (i.e. explain to me why you were so angry when I asked you to come with me to my mother’s house). (2 hour x 1 day= 2 hours)

As reasonable as five hours seems for something so important, it is still five hours. For many of us, that is a lot of time. Time that you might think you don’t have. That is a decision you will have to make for yourself. But before you decide to skimp on that time to take care of something else, consider the benefits of putting your relationship first.

Happy, vibrant relationships never just happen. They require attention, effort, and time. In fact, they are not much different from pursuing any passion. If you loved photography, you would learn more about cameras, how to arrange a perfect picture, and perhaps how to process your own film (even given the advent of the digital camera). In return for all of your efforts, you would expect to be able to take better photos. Similarly, the more interest you show in your partner and time you spend together, the more you can expect to excel in fulfilling the relationship.

While the minutes you spend doing these activities with your partner might not add up to such a tidy 5 hours, this structured time is a wonderful model to work from. It is a simple, concrete way for you to maintain and protect your relationship like the treasure that it is. And, vowing to use the “magic five hours” would be the most meaningful Valentine’s Day present you could ever give.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ