When it comes to love, we often talk so much about the search for it rather than its preservation. What happens after you have found someone you want to be with and your relationship has left the honeymoon phase, entering a more mature love phase? How do you maintain your connection as the years tick by? At a time when high-profile couples married decades are calling it quits, from Blair Underwood and Desiree DaCosta divorcing after 27 years, to Dell and Sonya Curry contentiously splitting after more than 30, it’s a question that needs answering.
“The goal of any relationship is growth. If a person is not committed to the growth of the relationship, then just like any living thing, it dies,” New Orleans-based licensed clinical social worker, sexologist, sex and relationship expert, and therapist Shamyra Howard tells ESSENCE. She is the author of Use Your Mouth: Pocket-sized Conversations to Simply Improve 7 Types of Intimacy in and Out of the Bedroom. “Relationships need constant and consistent nurturing to survive. Unlike a spider plant, which requires minimal care and is hard to kill, relationships are more like roses, requiring attention and environmental changes to sustain life.”
Signs that you’ve landed in a place where attention to your relationship has fallen by the wayside, according to Howard, is that there is “a lack of interest in the growth of the relationship and an emotional disconnect.” Atlanta-based psychologist, speaker, minister, and author Alduan Tartt Ph.D, who offers a beloved marriage retreat, agrees.
“Disconnected couples usually have mistakenly taken their marriage for granted and stop doing the things that bonded them in the first place,” he says. “For instance, they used to talk all the time but barely set aside time to talk alone each night. This is common for marriages where kids are involved, work is demanding, and even with couples who simply forget to continue dating one another consistently.”
When these signs or symptoms of a neglected connection show up, Tartt says it’s important to return to square one.
“Couples should go back to the beginning or the best phase of their marriage/relationship and determine what was working well.”
He recommends couples find their own “success blueprint” by setting up “rituals of connection.” This involves making time for certain practices that benefit the relationship, better known as carving out quality time. Sharing tea after dinner, coffee talk time, going for walks, watching a show cuddled next to one another, they can all keep a couple connected. Other big and small examples include a weekly date night, celebrating anniversaries, blocking off time for intimacy and fun, and deciding to always speak before either party leaves or returns home.
For couples finding themselves needing to do these things, Howard also suggests seeking out martial counseling, doing it early and often.
“Most couples can tell when their relationship is off track but too many wait until it is beyond repair to get help,” she says. “Research shows that couples go to therapy six years too late to work on their relationship.”
It’s good to know what to do when a long-term relationship begins to lose its fire, but it’s also important to know why it fades. Howard explains that the spark that exists at the beginning of relationships gradually declines over time as the love matures. To keep the spark alive in long-term relationships there must be some risk involved. While you’re not expected to do exactly what you did at the beginning of your relationship (perhaps staying up late to talk, sneaking away to have sex, etc.), your relationship needs risks. That means finding out what you can do to be interesting to your partner and vice versa. Take turns asking and answering the question, “What can I do to be more interesting to you this week?” and be open to the responses.
Both experts stress that the key to maintaining relationships, at any stage, is to be intentional about the actions you take in love. As Tartt puts it, “Love is an action and actions gets results!”