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Elise Silverman* recalls the moment she realized she and her husband weren't as close as they once were. "I had a dream that I was pregnant," says Silverman, 38, whose children are 8 and 10. "In the dream, I felt kind of drunk with joy at the idea of having another child with my husband." But when she woke up and looked at him sleeping beside her, she felt disappointment. "I was sad that I didn't feel as close to him in reality. The dream made me remember how we used to feel: like we were this tight knot, all wrapped up in each other and amazed at what we were creating together."
Silverman, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, realized that kids, work, and the daily tumult of life had loosened and frayed the knot that was once so secure. "We'd lost sight of who we were as a couple," she says. It's an all-too-common lament: that despite a husband's and wife's best intentions, they've grown apart and feel distant rather than connected.
Fortunately, for those who crave a renewed closeness, bonds can be strengthened, and with proper attention, marriages can enter a new, even more fulfilling stage. "What we're all striving for in marriage is intimacy," says Linda Solomon, LSHC, a marital therapist in Dallas. "Intimacy involves total understanding and acceptance. You don't feel the need to hide your thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants from your partner." Intimacy is also the comfortable sense of being able to drop your defenses with someone. Intimacy isn't simply a feeling, however. It's a process -- something that is constantly in the works.
For couples in troubled relationships, the path back to intimacy can be a difficult one, for which outside help may be needed. But for relatively healthy marriages, rebuilding intimacy can be as easy as committing to a few actions that will reap large rewards. Here are 10 ways to bring you and your spouse closer together, starting today.
*Name has been changed
1. Forgive each other for something you've held on to. Maybe you've resented the unfavorable comparisons he's made between you and your mother; he may still be mad about the time your generosity at Christmas ate into the retirement fund. "Petty little grudges can be an obstacle to joy," says Gregory K. Popcak, MSW, author of The Exceptional Seven Percent: The Nine Secrets of the World's Happiest Couples. Popcak points out that some people nurse hurts because they like to be right, which makes them feel superior. "But self-righteousness leads to estrangement because you hold the other person beneath you," he says. "Real intimacy requires a relationship between equals."
2. Give up a habit your spouse dislikes, or at least cut back, and vice versa. Maybe it's smoking, or your marathon phone chats with friends in the evening, or his thing about not screwing the cap back on the toothpaste tube after brushing. "My husband always worried that I drank too much wine," says Patricia Kendall* of Denver, who rewarded herself with a glass of wine or two each night after getting the kids in bed. "Last summer, I gave up the wine except for special occasions, which removed this source of tension between us and had the additional effect of helping me lose weight. My husband has been so elated and proud of me since I've cut down. I think it shows him that his opinion really matters to me."
If each person attempts to make a change that will please the other, it will go a long way toward reaffirming that the relationship is a top priority. One important element of intimacy is putting "we" ahead of "me" or "you," and often that means making sacrifices, not begrudgingly, for the good of the marriage.
But don't be too disappointed if your spouse can't make the break as quickly as you would like him to. "You've got to have patience with him," says Joyce Dolberg Rowe, LMHC, a marital therapist in Boston. "Avoid saying things like, 'If I've told you I don't like it, why do you continue to do it?'" Use positive reinforcement to help him along in his struggle, realizing that a sincere attempt speaks volumes about his regard for you. You might say, "That you're making the effort means the world to me."
3. Get physical. Take up a new activity together, such as a massage class or a dancing class, that will allow you to touch each other in a nonsexual but sensuous way. "The more senses that are involved, the more intimate the experience," says Rowe. "Touching, tasting, smelling, getting into someone's space, they all help break through your emotional barriers."
Taking a class together will also let you experience the excitement of trying something new. "When you think about who you are closest to in your life, it's people who share the same experiences and interests," says Popcak. Too often, he says, husbands and wives only connect at home or with the children, and then pursue separate hobbies with friends. "When we share things that we find good and beautiful and exciting with the person we love most in the world, it is natural that we will feel closer," he says. It's as if you're tying new threads between the two of you, which helps prevent your getting pulled in different directions.
4. Write down memories of your meeting and falling in love and read them to each other. This can create such good feelings that you may even re-experience those initial pangs, if only briefly. When men and women fall in love, a hormone called oxytocin is released, producing a sense of well-being and contentment. This exercise has the potential for getting the hormones flowing again, creating reserves of goodwill.
"Remembering your first meeting, the things you loved to do together, how it felt to touch each other, and what brought you together, you get perspective on the pettiness of things that you bicker about on a day-to-day basis," says Rowe. The more you can focus on the qualities that made you fall in love with him, the smaller his annoying qualities will seem. And when you hit a rough spot in your marriage, the romantic history you share can serve as a glue that binds you to each other. Happily, the memories of your earliest times together are something you can return to again and again.
*Name has been changed
5. See each other in a new light. If he's never heard you sing in your church choir, he needs to go. If you've never cheered him on at his bowling league, you should do so. The rewards from making this effort can be numerous. For one thing, you can feel the pride and joy of seeing him being successful at something, and being respected and admired by others, says Rowe. Also, he can feel the flattery of your attention, and the elation that comes from sharing something that's special to him with you.
Ellesor Holder of Greenwood, South Carolina, is amazed at how close she feels to her husband since they started building a 4,000-square-foot house together (especially since people warned her how stressful a building project could be on a marriage). Her husband, an engineer, is doing most of the construction himself with a small crew. "I'd never really seen him at work before," she says. "But now I've watched him up on the scaffolding figuring out complicated electrical issues. I've watched him negotiate with subcontractors, handling things calmly and with integrity, and getting good prices. I can't tell you how much more I admire him now, knowing the passion and skill he's brought to this project that's so important to both of us."
6. Take a daily temperature reading. It sounds absurdly basic, but talking every day -- not about the ordinary details of life, but about yourselves and what you are feeling and experiencing -- is vital to intimacy. "Sharing your feelings provides the connection that makes all the other talking worthwhile," says Flo Rosof, PhD, a marital therapist from Huntington, New York. If you can't find the time for a discussion at home, talk at the office or send an e-mail. A well-timed call or e-mail to find out how an important meeting went helps drive home that you care about what he's doing and feeling.
Making time for good conversation is what helped Elise Silverman, the mother of two who dreamed she was pregnant, and her husband get closer. "We turn off the TV after the kids are in bed and sit across from each other, eye to eye, so that we can really tune in," she says. "We talk about how the things that happened that day make us feel."
7. Be generous. This entails all sorts of acts, from buying simple, unexpected gifts, to responding cheerfully to requests, to doing small favors. For people who have a generous nature, this is easy; those who don't will need to make a more concerted effort -- and may need some guidance. "Our routine used to be that my husband, who always gets up before me, would make his coffee, and I'd make my tea when I got up," says a California mother of three who has been married 12 years. "One morning, I was up before him and made his coffee and put it in a thermos so it would stay hot. He was so surprised. Nothing was said, but ever since then, when he gets up first, he'll make his coffee along with my tea and put it in a thermos so it's hot for me when I get up. He just needed me to show him how powerful those little considerations are."
The message in these simple acts is, "I'm thinking of you," says Solomon. Sending this message on a regular basis works to deepen the good feelings two people have for each other. "We all want to feel that we matter," she says. "What a great gift -- to give that feeling to our partner."
8. Make a list of 25 ways you feel loved, and have your spouse do the same. This could include everything from "giving me a shoulder rub when I'm stressed" to "checking the oil in the car." Exchange lists -- if you can't think of 25 ways, start with 10 -- and see how many items on your spouse's list you can do every week. Make copies of the lists, suggests Popcak, and post them in places where they'll be seen every day -- the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, beside your bed. "This way you can't forget," he says.
"Close relationships are nurtured daily in the little exchanges between two people. Major efforts, like taking a weekend away, are also important, of course," says Popcak. "But real love is played out in the simple consideration and attention that a couple shows each other every day."
9. Catch each other doing something right. Express your gratefulness when he's been thoughtful -- like making your sandwich while he's making his -- or when he's done something that you like, such as fluffing up the sofa pillows. It's human nature to take notice of things that are not done the way we like. It requires vigilance to look for the good and not let it pass without comment, but the payoff is worth it. Noticing good acts makes the doer feel appreciated and likelier to do more of the same.
10. Be playful. Fun and laughter are often the first things to be squeezed out of a marriage by the demands of everyday life. But knowing how to enjoy yourselves together, even if you're not on a special date or outing, can keep you close.
"Humor is a huge part of intimacy," says Solomon. "Because when the tough times come, laughter may be the one thing that can carry you through. Problems always seem less ominous if you can keep your sense of humor. Also, when you can laugh together and enjoy each other's company, the unspoken message is that the commitment is still there." Being able to laugh at yourself is particularly intimacy-enhancing because it shows that you trust the other person enough to be vulnerable.
So tell jokes, flirt, tease, play pranks, be goofy. "Sometimes my husband and I have pillow fights," says Rowe. "I like to make him laugh. Being playful keeps us young and our relationship fresh and new."