Based on a combination of academic research and the real world experiences of my clients in long term gay relationships, the following are six practices that can enhance and maintain relationships over a lifetime:
“The Greet”: Dogs are the acclaimed experts of this practice. They know how to greet their people when coming home. With their entire bodies they demonstrate they are grateful that you are a part of their lives. It’s a key reason we become so attached to them. You don’t necessarily have to wag your tail when your partner comes home, but initiating some kind of friendly greeting can be an important ingredient in supporting your relationship.
Sex Matters: Couples that convince themselves that sex is no longer important after years of togetherness sometimes get into trouble. Sex can grow and develop just like other parts of your life together. To add spice to a sex life that has become routine you’ll need creativity. This can mean ramping up your curiosity about role-play, exploring breathing practices like tantra, or sharing your fantasies. Fantasy makes what is familiar new and exciting again. This is one aspect of relationship development that requires a spirit of fun: sexual negativity and complaining kills sex drive.
Developing You: Many couples fall into the trap of expecting their partner to fill the hole in their lives. Coupledom does not provide an escape from self-development. The truth is there is no effective long term escape from self-development. At any stage of life—even into your eighties and nineties—you need to keep growing in order to reach greater contentment.
Daily Rituals: Aim for a daily check-in. This is some version of “How was your day, honey?” Try to practice this without multi-tasking. Hide the portable electronic devices and spend a few minutes just hearing what you partner did that day. It is your job to know about some (but not all) of the seemingly insignificant details of your partner’s office gossip, health issues, and favorite pop culture references. A “check-in” is a part of my daily practice. As Oscar Wilde said: “Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation."
Boundaries = Closeness: Everyone needs time alone. You need some friends and activities that are yours and that are not always experienced with your partner. Sometimes you may need to shut the door, put on the earphones, or go for a walk by yourself in the neighborhood. It is okay to “go away” for a while, as long as you commit to authentically coming back later.
Keep Talking: As humans, the key method we have to repair hurts is communication. If you are not a “good communicator” then now may be a time to start learning. Communication is a skill that can be learned, just like knitting or skiing—it just takes instruction and practice. Fortunately improved communication is something that many couples can learn in a few hours. I don’t recommend waiting to seek couples counseling until a crisis occurs. Just a few sessions can enhance a relationship that is already doing well. Believe it or not, it can be fun, especially when you go out to dinner afterwards.
Ultimately what keeps long term relationships strong is paying attention to the emotional bond between you. The work of fostering emotional intimacy—which means feeling free to share your feelings without fearing rejection—can be supported by experimenting with some of the practices outlined here.