Tag Archives: keeping romance alive

The Private Language Of Marriage

I read an article in the International Herald Tribune last Friday that really struck a chord. It was an essay by writer Joan Wickersham about the ways in which longtime couples develop their own private lexicons with which to communicate with one another.

She talks about this dynamic within the rubric of marriage, but her point applies to any long-term partnership. What’s crucial is that you’re together long enough to have a shared experience that which then evolves into a catch phrase that only the two of you can understand.

By way of example, Wickersham recounts the story of how – right after she married her husband – she got a job in a bank which she hated. Even though her husband had a job that he liked, he convinced her to quit her job (and he his) so that they could move somewhere else and both be happy. From there on out, “It’s like the bank” became their stock way to describe any situation that was especially bleak and dismal. Wickersham has another great story about the phrase “We’re just not serrated knife people” and what it came to mean within the context of their marriage.

My husband and I have been together for nearly 17 years and I know exactly what she means. I’m one of those people who’s obsessed with schedules. Once – on a trip to visit my husband’s parents in Atlanta – I perseverated for hours over whether, upon landing at Hartsfield Airport, we ought to go directly to his parents’ home or stop by and visit a friend first and risk being late. To this day, whenever I begin obsessing about our travel schedule, my husband will look at me and say: “Should we just go home or should we stop at Douglas Jackson’s?” (Not his real name.) It’s code for: Are you really going to go on about this all night?

Similarly, we’ve also incorporated a phrase to describe that feeling you get when you anticipate that someone is going to disagree with you. My husband and I met in graduate school and one of our early bonding experiences was over our feelings about a mutual acquaintance (we’ll call him Simon Collins.) Simon Collins was the kind of person who – no matter what you said – instinctively responded with something negative. I haven’t seen or talked to Simon in years. Nor has my husband. But whenever one of us raises a topic that might possibly prompt criticism, we preface it by saying “No Simon Collins!”  to disarm the other person from any knee-jerk disapproval.

Neither of these phrases would mean anything to anyone but the two of us. And that’s the point.

I’ve written before about some of the things that make for a happy marriage/partnership: having shared interests; establishing a division of labor. But Wickersham’s column reminded me of one more crucial ingredient – feeling like a team. There are lots of ways to do this, but having a private language – a “civilization of two” as she puts it – is one of the principle ways that you can reinforce that bond.

How about you? What strange and impenetrable shorthands have you and your partner devised to communicate with one another?

I’d love to hear them…

Image: portrait of a happy couple – day 358 or Project 365 by purplemattfish via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Improve A Long-Term Relationship

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s post goes to the heart of keeping a long-standing relationship going. If you’re in one – whether with a partner, a spouse or even a roommate – you know that over time, things can get a bit stale. You start having the same fights over and over. You start completing your partner’s sentences, in a way that breeds boredom rather than intimacy. You know – with agonizing specificity – exactly what the other person likes to eat for breakfast.

So it’s time to shake things up a bit. Change the routine. And also change the way you act towards the other person. You’ll be surprised how well it works. Here are five concrete suggestions for how to do this:

1. Make a small gesture. Happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin lists “Give Proofs of Love” as one of her resolutions. By which she means that it’s as important to demonstrate your love to someone else as it is to love them. Perhaps even more important. There are lots of ways to show someone you love them. You can buy them a new car. Book an appointment with a career counselor. Decorate their room with their favorite things. But you can also do small things. In my case, I noticed one morning that my husband’s toast had popped out of the toaster and was ready to be buttered. While that’s not normally something I’d do for him (speaking of breakfast routines), one day I decided that I’d do it, just to be nice. Guess what? He noticed. And thanked me. Then I did it again. He thanked me again. And I realized how even a tiny gesture can speak volumes.

2. Defer to your partner on a decision. If you’re in a long-term relationship, chances are you’re making loads of decisions together all the time: where to live, which school to send the kids to, how to balance career/family. Some of those can and must be done together. But occasionally a decision will come along where you can afford not to weigh in as much as you otherwise might. In my case, it’s our upcoming move. I’m a bit of a control freak. (In case you haven’t noticed.) And in an ideal world, I’d probably approach our move somewhat differently than my husband would. But I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to defer to him on this one. He’s less spastic (for lack of a better word) than I am about moving. And it just seemed like a real shame to try to micro-manage this particular event in our lives (and all the stress, anxiety and quarrels that would likely provoke), so I  just let him take the lead. And you know what? We’re both more relaxed about it now.

3. Make A Sanctuary. Once you’ve spent years in a relationship of any sort, it’s easy to start letting other parts of your individual lives (work, kids, relatives) invade your space together. Try not to let this happen. Obviously, you can’t seal off your relationship completely. But you can at least try to protect it. I had one set of friends (a couple) who made a rule that “all work stays at the door.” By which they meant that their bedroom would be a sanctuary. They were both allowed to work in the evening – they had to, sometimes – but when they were finished working, all work had to stay by the door literally outside their bedroom. I thought this was a great idea.

4. Carve out Time. Of course, a sanctuary isn’t any good to you unless you actually spend some time there. So in addition to demarcating your private space, you need also to do things together inside it. Whatever you enjoy most. In my own case, my husband and I try to set aside time every night to talk about the day and then watch something together – a DVD commentary, a BBC documentary, The Daily Show. Another couple I know makes a point of eating dinner together every night after their daughter goes to sleep (*he* cooks, mind you!), even if it’s 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night.  Still another couple I know takes a run together once a week in the morning and stops for tea mid-way through. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but that you do it together.

5. Go On An Overnight Getaway. Ok, this advice may be less good for the room mates at hand. But if you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, a great way to re-ignite that flame is to go on an adventure. If you can’t afford to pay for a hotel and sitter, then see if you can send your kids to a friend or relative and have the night to yourselves in your own home. That can be just as fun. If you can afford to splurge once in a while, it’s well worth the effort. We had some friends in Chicago who spent the entire weekend of their 10th anniversary at a hotel in downtown Chicago just 9 miles away from where the live. They had a blast. Last week, we managed to finagle a free room in a fancy hotel in London while my mother was visiting. True, we were on the smoking floor. But I can’t tell you how much fun it was to get dressed up and go down to Soho and have dinner at  a chic restaurant on a Thursday night and then amble back (at a leisurely pace!) to our fancy digs. Bliss!

*****

For those who are interested, hop on over to PoliticsDaily.com to see why I think Nick Clegg has fundamentally changed the nature of British electoral politics.


Image: Toasts by Electric Bielka via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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