On the school playground, you probably gave your sweetheart a paper heart with “I like u a LOT” painstakingly scribbled on it in your favourite crayon colour. Since then, you’ve come a long way in terms of communicating your love to your spouse. But even the best marriage can benefit from a little spark. This month, we chatted with relationship experts and life coaches for easy, practical tips on enhancing communication within a marriage, as well as special ways to express your love. It’s perfect for Valentine’s Day – and the other 364 squares on the calendar.
Enhance your communication
- If you and your spouse have a disagreement, explain what’s bothering you in a non-accusatory manner. “Use all the restraint you can muster to not say, ‘You never’ or ‘You always,’ ” suggests Sally Landau, a certified life coach.
- But sometimes, discretion is okay. “Everything in your head does not need to be said,” says Stephanie Staples, a motivational speaker and wife of 22 years. “I know you think you will explode, but . . . ask yourself if what you are about to say is going to help or hurt your relationship.”
- Have an attitude of gratitude. “Recent studies . . . reveal that gratitude benefits both the giver and the receiver,” reports Todd Reed, a communication coach and author. “When either of you does something nice for the other – lets you sleep in, washes the dishes when it’s your turn – take a second to show appreciation. Even if you’re just saying thanks for the small stuff, it can go a long way in solidifying your relationship.”
- Use “hot words” when things get heated . “Never respond when you are angry – leave the room or the house if you need to cool off,” advises Elle Swan, an international speaker and life coach. “Establish a ‘hot word’ that each person can use to let the other person know, ‘I am angry and we need to stop talking.’ ” Examples of hot words include “cancel” or “break.” Once you’ve both calmed down, resume the conversation. “The best way to fully understand what your spouse is saying,” she says, “is to ask clarifying questions. A clarifying question always begins with, ‘What I hear you saying is . . . . Is that correct?’” This will give your spouse a chance to either agree or clarify what they meant. “The goal is to always communicate with a calm, level head.”
- Express your needs or wants clearly. “You did not marry your clone,” notes Debbie Mandel, a radio host and author of Addicted to Stress. “So, be specific when communicating to your spouse. Do not take for granted that he or she has read your mind or intuits what you want.”
Show how much you love your spouse
- Write a love note – the classic way to express yourself, and a practice that has slowly been replaced in our modern times. “In an age of virtual communication,” says Farrah Parker, an interpersonal communications instructor at California State University, “couples may benefit from giving and/or receiving a handwritten note – not an email, not a text message, but an actual pen and paper.”
- Take a class together. “Couples who are not engaged in any joint activities,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family psychotherapist and author, “are living ‘parallel lives’ like young children in parallel play; there is no real connection. Without joint time and activities, intimacy suffers.” The benefits are many. “Learning together alleviates boredom, routine and the doldrums,” she says, “and allows us to see our spouse in a different light. This keeps the creative juices flowing, making a person more interesting. It also allows for new and interesting conversations, whether during the activity and/or after it.” O’Neill specifically recommends taking a cooking class, because the act of making a meal and enjoying it together creates a sense of security and safety in your marriage.
- Go beyond simple “I love you” remarks. “Use character-quality language,” suggests Susanne Alexander, a marriage coach. “When couples say specifically, ‘I love how enthusiastic (or courageous, or caring, or thoughtful . . .) you are,’ it goes right to the heart. Add specifics about what actions were taken and it works like giving gold.”
- Dates – even cheap fast-food ones – are important. “You don't have to break the bank to enjoy time with your spouse,” says pastor Ryan Dalgliesh, author of Love Notes: A Biblical Look at Love. “Plan a regular night each week that you can call a date night. As a poor preacher, our monthly budget is $100. Once a month, we go to a nicer restaurant. The other three weeks, we hit up Chick-Fil-A or Subway. We just make a point to have time alone. It is always very refreshing.”
- But you can even make a date night at home, even with your kids. “Many couples are harried at the end of the day and dinner gets thrown on the table,” says Michael Jonas, who creates conversation-starting board games for couples along with his wife, Barbara. Make a more intimate atmosphere at the dinner table with matching dishware, a sprig of flowers and softer lighting. “These specific things calm the day’s end and invite conversation – even with children, who often learn from what they observe their parents do rather than what their parents say.”
- Make a souvenir that celebrates a special moment that you and your spouse shared. “Find a favourite photograph of the two of you and have it printed on a mouse pad or a large magnet,” says Jason Coleman, author of Discovering Your Amazing Marriage. “I did this almost seven years ago with a photo we took at the beach one summer. At the local office supply store, I found a box of printable magnetic paper. I made a large refrigerator magnet with our picture on it, from our home computer and printer . . . and it's still on our fridge to this day!"
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Reference to the individuals quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.