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3 Ways to Spring Clean Your Relationship

Not all couples fight: some seethe in silence until they combust, while others simply let themselves drift apart. Bring the spark back to your love life with this expert advice.

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Spring-cleaning your relationship

After being married for 27 years, Michelle and Josh found they fought about everything. The tension had built up while the Aurora, Ont., fiftysomethings were raising their three kids. “I’m the checklist person; he’s the fun dad,” Michelle says, explaining that when she had an evening out with friends, instead of making sure the kids did their homework, Josh would play video games with them. Polarized into these roles, they both thought the other was wrong—he was immature; she was rigid.

After their kids were fully grown, resentment remained, and they were left bickering about who would buy milk or what to watch on TV. The word “divorce” began to come up in the heat of the moment, Michelle says, but they weren’t really ready to split. As a last-ditch effort, two and a half years ago they attended a couples’ retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to help them save their marriage. Once there, they realized they should have taken action sooner—and more often.

Not all couples fight, of course. Some seethe in silence until they combust, while others simply let themselves drift apart from a lack of investment in the relationship. Around this time of year, you may declutter your basement, clear out the freezer or wash all the windows. Why not give your relationship that same kind of much-needed spring cleaning?

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Break out of your comfort zone

“A lot of couples get into a rut,” says Grace Cirocco, a marriage coach who hosts the retreat Michelle and Josh attended. “It’s logistical—it’s making dinner, doing the laundry. There is usually very little time for the couple to just be together.”

To address this disconnect, Cirocco says one important thing a couple can do at least once a year is learn something new together. “I had a couple—she was from Argentina and he was Canadian—take a tango class as a nod to her culture,” Cirocco says. They loved the experience so much that they continued their private lessons, signed up for a dance competition and even took a “tango and Malbec” tour of Argentina.

Doing an activity outside the norm not only helps break people out of their tedium, it can also reinforce a couple’s bonds on an ongoing basis, says Cirocco. Cooking lessons can lead to more shared time in the kitchen; a yoga seminar may turn into a mutual morning practice; and dance classes can become weekly excursions. “All of those activities encourage that feeling of, We’re investing in us.”

And indeed, science has confirmed the importance of doing something new with your partner. In a series of studies spanning the last two decades, social psychology researcher Arthur Aron consistently found that couples who engage in novel experiences reported higher relationship satisfaction afterwards. During these activities, he found, the brain releases dopamine, commonly called the “love drug”—the chemical present when people fall for each other.

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Reminisce about old times

Living in the past may not always be bad. A 2013 study from Queensland University in Australia reported that couples who shared a happy memory before discussing a presently difficult issue were more likely to agree and show intimacy toward each other while they talked.

Remembering good times is helpful, says Toronto psychologist Nicole McCance, because the process of sharing a life ends up changing what we see when we look at each other. Through the stressful managing of work, family and the home, people can begin to associate their partners with struggle, and may even view their very person as stress-inducing. “It’s called classical conditioning,” McCance says, explaining that eventually our brains can have an automatic stress response even by just thinking about our partner.

Happy memories can be recalled often, but McCance recommends every once in a while couples should counteract the negative associations in a more focused way by making an event out of it, recreating their first date (right down to sitting at the same table in the same restaurant) or looking back through old photo albums.

“I met my husband online,” McCance says. “On our anniversary, we read our old emails. It’s fun to think back to that romantic time and giggle over what we said.” In the weeks that follow, they joke and laugh more, she adds. “A sense of playfulness comes back, a sense of wonder that’s often lost after the first year of dating.”

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improve relationship couple fightingPhoto: Shutterstock

Discuss how you fight

“Couples tend to handle conflict so poorly that they avoid it at all costs until things boil over,” says Matthew Johnson, who studies relationships at the University of Alberta. “At that point, it’s just going to be ugly.” To avoid this, he suggests partners regularly reassess how they handle arguments.

In a paper analyzing data from a long-term, self-reported survey of more than 3,000 German couples, which was published last summer, Johnson concluded that people who fought “constructively” were more likely to say they were satisfied in their relationships a year later. For many, this meant taking time to understand their partners—asking for clarification, posing additional questions, listening through the entire argument before chiming in—and staying focused on the fight in front of them.

None of that is easy, though, Johnson admits: humans are hard-wired to want to be right. “We have to think we have a correct outlook on the world,” he says, explaining that we choose this default position so we’re not questioning every decision we make. “Listing out a litany of ways a partner has wronged you going back further and further fulfills this desire.”

Learning more productive ways of arguing was an important focus for Michelle and Josh at their retreat. Cirocco taught them that there’s no winner in a fight, says Michelle, and how to know when to walk away. Now, when she’s on the cusp of saying something nasty or mean-spirited, Michelle stops, takes a break and regroups with Josh once they’re calmer and have had more time to process their feelings.

The pair has since attended a second couples’ getaway, and if finances allow, hope to go on a third in 2019. “I was really happy Josh wanted to do it with me,” Michelle says. “Our relationship has gotten a second chance.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada