Valentine’s Day is looming large on the horizon, and everywhere you look, commercials, magazines, store displays, and more are focused on helping couples plan the “perfect” February 14th celebration. Yes, if you’re in a relationship, it is important and enjoyable to celebrate your love on this special day.
However, Todd Patkin has some advice for married couples especially: Romance, roses, chocolates, and champagne are only a small part of what makes up a marriage. The truth is, it’s the 364 days that surround February 14th that can make or break the quality of your relationship and lead to therapy or counseling. So if you want to give your spouse the most meaningful Valentine’s gift of all, commit to putting daily thought—and yes, work!—into your relationship.
“I believe that many marriages simply deteriorate because couples allow their relationships to run on ‘autopilot,’ but still expect them to stay healthy and exciting, especially around holidays like Valentine’s Day,” explains Todd Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In). “But the truth is, like everything else in life, relationships don’t work that way. We must learn to put as much—no, even more—effort into our marriages as we do in trying to succeed professionally or keeping our gardens, houses, or cars looking top shelf.”
Furthermore, Patkin asserts that a happy marriage is the cornerstone of a happy life—if your marriage isn’t good, you’re going to have trouble feeling fulfilled in other areas as well.
“I know from experience that if you get it right here, it’s easier to get it right in all of the other aspects of your life, because the person who’s closest to you will be there to support you and will have your best interests at heart,” he adds.
“When you let your marriage just ‘sit,’ it’ll eventually get rusty and break down, just like your car would,” Patkin points out. “And that’s a terrible tragedy. We all should have been told growing up that you do have to work on your marriage every day, too, if you want it to stay exciting and great.”
If you’re ready and willing to do everything in your power to make your marriage a happier one (perhaps starting this February 14th), read on for Patkin’s nine tips:
Recommit yourself to your marriage every single day. Believe it or not, your marriage vows weren’t a one-time deal. No, you and your spouse probably aren’t going to stand in front of your loved ones and recommit yourselves to one another on a regular basis. But if you want to cultivate a strong and happy marriage, you should start each morning by making a renewed personal commitment to keeping your relationship healthy and rewarding.
“As I mentioned earlier, people work on their cars, their houses, and their gardens on a regular basis,” Patkin points out. “And just as these things need regular, constant attention to thrive, so does your marriage. Don’t let your enthusiasm for working on your relationship be short-lived. In order to give your marriage regular tune-ups, start by remembering what you said you’d do when you made your vows: Love your spouse. Honor her (or him!). Cherish her. Comfort her. Remain faithful to her. And do these things in good times and bad, in sickness and in health—every day of your marriage.”
Evaluate where your self-worth comes from. With very few exceptions, we human beings tend to base our sense of self-worth on the things that are most important to us. It’s common to hear people proudly say, “I’m a financial advisor,” or, “I’m the manager of my division at work,” or even, “I drive a Cadillac!” But how often do you hear, “I am the world’s luckiest husband,” or, “I have the best family in the whole wide world”?
“I understand all about being proud of your career accomplishments and of other things in your life, but I truly believe that the happiest couples draw a lot of their self-worth from their relationship with each other,” Patkin asserts. “So please assess where your marriage really falls right now on your list of personal accomplishments. Are you consistently relying on something other than your marriage, like your job, to make you feel good about yourself?”
Verbalize to your spouse the things you love and appreciate about him or her all of the time. Did you know that the things you think about and talk about influence how you experience the world around you? It’s true! So why not spend time thinking about how great your spouse is and then verbalizing those thoughts? Start by reminding yourself of all of the reasons why you fell in love in the first place, and then list how much more wonderful your partner has gotten since your marriage. Also, tell her (or him!) how much she means to you, how much you love her, and how beautiful she is ten times a day.
“Believe me, no one will ever say that they hear such compliments about themselves too many times,” Patkin promises. “And not only will this make your partner feel great in the moment, but consistently complimenting one another is the single greatest long-term vitamin you can each give to one another for your marriage. Verbalizing such compliments to your spouse is especially important today because most of us have a tendency to dwell on our mistakes while disregarding all of the things we do right. And we don’t normally hear compliments from our kids, our coworkers, or even our friends either, so over time, we start to feel small and unhappy. Thus, as a spouse, it is your responsibility to continue to make your wife or husband feel as great about her or himself as possible.”
Acknowledge the little things your spouse does, and return the favor. In a similar vein, constantly perform small but meaningful acts for your spouse, and don’t be surprised if he or she starts to do the same for you (if he or she doesn’t do so already, that is!). For example, if your wife hates unloading the dishwasher, make a point to get into the kitchen and put away the dishes first. Or make a mental note to wash the sheets on Friday afternoon so that they’ll be clean when your husband sleeps in on Saturday. Acts like this don’t take much time or energy, but they show your spouse that you are paying attention and that you care—and that is truly priceless!
“Also, it’s key that anytime your spouse goes out of his or her way to make your life better or easier, acknowledge that you’ve noticed and that you appreciate this expression of your partner’s love,” Patkin suggests. “Never let small acts go unnoticed. Saying thank you—and accompanying it with a heartfelt hug or kiss—starts a cycle of giving and getting. It’s when you don’t acknowledge your spouse’s efforts that he or she will begin to feel taken for granted and ignored. And usually, things will only go downhill from there.”
Learn—and then do—what makes your spouse feel most loved. Say, for example, that you love to receive gifts. Whether it’s a big-screen TV or a lowly fridge magnet picked up during a friend’s travels, you feel acknowledged and appreciated whenever you’re handed a wrapped box. So whenever you want to let your wife know that you’re thinking about her or want to boost her mood, you bring home a gift: flowers, a CD, or a book by one of her favorite authors. Only problem is, what your wife is really craving is a nice, long hug.
“Don’t assume you know what makes your spouse feel the most loved,” Patkin advises. “While any expression of love is, of course, a good thing, the fact is that we all feel loved in different ways. So it is important that you find out what makes your spouse feel the most loved. Simply ask the question, ‘What have I done in the past that made you feel the most special?’ Some people might want a date night. Others might need to be told verbally that they are the greatest. It’s always a good idea to ask your spouse what makes him or her feel most loved—and then include those actions or words into your regular repertoire. You’ll notice a big difference…and you’ll probably find that your spouse reciprocates, too.”
Don’t let resentment build. When you live in fairly close quarters with another human being, it’s inevitable that sooner or later you’re going to annoy each other. (In fact, at times you’re probably going to want to kill each other.) While it’s not a good idea to nit-pick with your spouse each and every time you feel a teeny bit put out, it’s also unhealthy to let issues and negative feelings build up and fester.
“Always, always make it a priority to keep the lines of communication open,” Patkin advises. “Even if you have to go for a walk to clear your head first, be sure to express your grievances in a calm, constructive way—preferably before you go to bed angry. Also, remember that this is a two-way street. When your spouse is upset with you, make every effort not to fly off the handle and to fairly consider what you’re hearing. Marriage does involve compromising and modifying your behavior for another’s well-being—and believe me, your mutual happiness is worth it.”
Take responsibility and stop trying to fix your partner. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on in marriages. After all, it’s easy to identify and list all the ways someone else is getting it wrong. (Plus, it just feels good to be “right.”) But how much good does all of this complaining and accusing really do? After you finish berating your spouse for yet another of his or her supposed failings, does the quality of your life actually change? Probably not. According to Patkin, it’s time to take a break from blaming and instead work on yourself. While both partners do need to be willing to compromise in order to help the other, it’s always best to look at how your own behavior could improve before you try to change your spouse’s.
“The more time you spend trying to change your spouse, the less time you have for improving yourself,” Patkin points out. “As far as I know, there has never been such a thing as a ‘perfect’ husband or wife! And I bet that when you begin to take responsibility for areas in which you may have been dropping the ball, the dynamic of your marriage will change. Perhaps your spouse has been trapped in a cycle of negativity that has been fed by your own less-than-helpful attitude. And remember, people unconsciously begin to mirror the people they spend the most time with. This happens for the good as well as for the bad! So if you start working on yourself, your spouse will most likely do the same.”
Figure out what your strengths are and play to them. As much as possible, you and your spouse should each play to your strengths within your marriage and back away from your weaknesses. If, for example, you’re great with words but don’t have much of a math brain, don’t take on the task of making sure the bills are paid and the accounts are balanced each month. Instead, take the lead in dealing with teachers, repairmen, etc. When you force yourself to do something for which you have little aptitude, you only frustrate yourself and, by extension, the people with whom you live.
“I’ll be honest—I’m awful when it comes to doing projects around the house,” Patkin admits. “I have very little mechanical understanding or skill, and I have no patience for these types of jobs. For years, though, I’d try tackling these sorts of projects around the house. And then when I failed to put the pieces of a new desk together, for example, I’d feel like less of a man. Well, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I will never be Mr. Home Improvement, and I don’t waste my time or energy on that type of task. Thus, I get much less frustrated, I’m happier,and the people around me are happier too! I’ve learned that it’s definitely a good idea to ask your spouse for help or pay to have the job done if neither of you feels confident.”
Date your spouse again. When you’re newly in love and in full courtship mode, you do everything you can to spend every free moment with your partner. Eventually though, work, kids, responsibilities, and life in general tend to get in the way of your relationship with your spouse. The two of you stop doing fun things with only one another, and it’s easy to go weeks at a time without having any serious conversations that don’t revolve around work, money, or kids. That’s why it’s imperative to set aside time to date your spouse.
“Vow to take the time to invest in the romantic part of your relationship,” Patkin advises. “It may not seem important, but this is the cornerstone of a good marriage. Without that so-called ‘spark,’ the other parts of your life, like work and kids, will suffer too. Try to act like you did when you were both in the infatuation period of your relationship: Bring home flowers or other small gifts. Plan a special date night (maybe involving a babysitter this time around!). Get tickets to the reunion tour of a band you and your spouse loved when you first began dating. Basically, get back to the essence of how you fell in love in the first place!”
“I hope that once you begin celebrating, respecting, and loving your spouse as I’ve just described, as well as prioritizing your marriage every day, you’ll find that the whole dynamic of your relationship changes,” Patkin concludes. “I hope that you’ll begin smiling more, feeling better, and experiencing more ‘spark.’ It’s true: Everything—and especially our own happiness—really is, to a huge extent, about our relationships with other people. And I think Cupid would agree!”
Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.findinghappinessthebook.com..