I met Jeffrey at a book reading several years ago. He had come to hear me talk about marriage. When he got to the front of the line for me to sign his book, he quietly asked if he could contact me because he had a burning question. Of course, I said, and gave him my card.
On the phone the following week, he told me he wasn’t a “self-help book person” and that he didn’t like psychology — or “psychobabble,” as he called it. But he said he felt my scientific approach was comforting and accessible.
Here’s how he described his situation:
“In the fall, our younger child will be going to college, and my wife and I are going to be alone for the first time in 21 years. Without our kids, I’m not sure there’s a marriage anymore. We never make love, we don’t have the same friends, and I don’t even know what we have to talk about.” I suggested couples counseling, but he wanted to see me in individual therapy.
Jeffrey, 52, is handsome, a vegetarian, enjoys exercising daily, and works hard as a lawyer in the suburbs near his family's home. He and his wife, Eloise, have two boys: Alex, 17, and Sam, 19. At 50, Eloise is a successful publicist who commutes to work in the city, is creative and attractive and loves fashion, people and theater.
In the early years, their relationship sizzled. “We were so into each other that our friends made fun of us," Jeffrey told me. "They’d roll their eyes and tell us to get a room.” But over time — like many other couples — they focused more and more of their energy and attention on work, domestic responsibilities and their children, and less on their marriage and love life. Jeffrey said they rarely went out as a couple anymore — “except to school functions and Alex’s lacrosse games” — and their sex life together had become null and void. Now the prospect of being alone together was making Jeffrey anxious and distressed.
(MORE: Get Creative to Keep Your Sex Life Active)
Pulling Yourself Out of a Relationship Rut
The first thing I told Jeffrey was that his situation was both common and fixable. Things become routine and humdrum, and both partners start feeling as if they are missing all of the good things that made their marriage fun and exciting.
In my long-term, government-funded study of couples who've been married at least 25 years, I asked the following questions: During the past month, did you feel that your marriage was in a rut (or falling into one)? Did you feel you were doing the same thing all the time and rarely doing exciting things together as a couple? More than 42 percent said they “often” felt that way.
Jeffrey’s decision to seek help was an extremely positive sign. From observing many married couples in similar situations, I have learned that those who successfully maneuver their marriage out of a rut go on to be stronger and happier over the long run. It’s doable, I told Jeffrey, and having no kids at home for the first time is actually a golden opportunity to work on things.
5 Steps to Rekindling Passion in a Long-Term Marriage
The following steps are based on my observations, interviews and analysis of mid-life couples who were able to retain or restore passion and romance in their long marriages.
- Express your desire. From the moment you decide you want to reboot the romance, you can start to make your life more fun and exciting. Choose a romantic situation with no distractions (e.g., kids, phone, TV), and tell your partner that you’re ready to bring back the spark and sizzle. Plan ahead and write what you want to say and rehearse it. Jeffrey picked up deli foods and took Eloise on a picnic in the park. While sipping wine and enjoying the fresh air, he “invited” her to join him on this adventure to rekindle the passion in their relationship.
- Psych yourselves up. As with any new endeavor, a positive attitude and concrete goals are the keys to success. Sit down and discuss all the benefits of having the house to yourselves and what you each are looking forward to. More free time? Freedom to travel or dine out more (or eat more healthfully)? Less mess? Skinny-dipping under the moonlight? List the benefits on a piece of paper and post it in your bedroom where only the two of you will see it. This simple activity will help get you excited about your new life. Eloise surprised Jeffrey by saying she wanted to host raucous adult dance parties like they did when they were first living together. They did just that as soon as their younger son left home.
- Start chatting daily. When was the last time you and your partner discussed something other than the kids, the house, money or work? Devote at least 10 minutes every day talking to your partner about anything except those topics. Meals are a great time for this. Jeffrey and Eloise began to talk about such things as what they would do if they won the lottery, whether they believed in UFOs, and spirituality. They got to know each other in new ways — almost as if they were dating again. Because of their work schedules, their best time for sharing was right before bed. Eloise reported that this simple activity made her feel more connected to Jeffrey and fueled her sexual energy.
- Try a new activity. Engaging in something novel benefits your marriage by helping to revive what you felt when you were dating, when everything was a new, shared experience. Trying new activities together — taking tennis lessons, trying a restaurant for the first time or doing something touristy — injects fun into the marriage. Jeffrey and Eloise decided to sign up for a cooking class that met twice a month for six months. They learned how to bake with whole-wheat flour and oats (cookies, cinnamon rolls and biscuits), something she had wanted to do for years.
- Talk about sex. It may seem weird or awkward after all these years, but it’s important for long-married couples to discuss their sex lives. This can be helpful as well as a bit of a turn-on, especially if you can be honest about your fantasies and what you desire from each other. A good way to start is by talking about what used to get you aroused when you first became intimate. Focus on the positive and what would be erotic to each of you. Remember to give this strategy time (a month or two), since it can be challenging.
(MORE: Survival Guide for Couples Who Are Always Together)
As you can see, these are not complicated or difficult steps. Nevertheless, each one addresses a different aspect of your marriage in a positive way. Bringing these new behaviors into a mature relationship will allow you to enjoy many more years of marital happiness. Don’t be surprised if you begin to feel more content and connected than ever: It happens all the time. On the other hand, if you meet with resistance after repeated attempts, you and your spouse may need to see a therapist together.
As for Jeffrey and Eloise, they were shocked, and pleasantly surprised, by how different life suddenly was with their boys out of the house—“the best aphrodisiac,” as Eloise called it. From wearing pajamas to the breakfast table to watching “their” shows on TV together at night, they discovered that fewer distractions naturally led to more relaxed times and togetherness.
Making a marriage more romantic requires a concerted effort and commitment. Jeffrey reports that they are rediscovering qualities about each other that had lain dormant — such as their mutual love of dancing to live music, something they hadn’t done since their college days. “I told El that I actually look forward to coming home at night now and that I can’t wait to see her.”