Whether you’ve been married for decades or are in a relatively new relationship, there is one thing all couples should be doing at least once a year to keep the spark of love alive.
Make sure you schedule a “relationship checkup” with your significant other, recommends Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and co-author of “Snap Strategies for Couples.”
Schwartz, who teaches classes in human sexuality and intimate relationships, explains what she means by that and how to make it work for you in the questions and answers below.
Q. What exactly is a “relationship checkup”?
Just as you make an appointment for an annual physical with your doctor or a dental checkup, the two of you regularly set aside a specific date to take a look systematically at how you are doing individually and as a couple. It can be everything from how work is affecting you to changes in your sex life or your dreams about the future.
And a good checkup also includes expressions of gratitude and positive affirmations, like: “I love it when we have weekend getaways. Maybe we should do more of that.”
Q. Why do couples need to schedule a specific time for this kind of conversation? Don’t they naturally talk about those subjects in the course of their relationship?
There’s a great quote from the writer Lillian Helman that I think is so true: “People change and forget to tell each other.” We first become intimate by showing our partner our most private self and how we see the world. But it’s not like we get to know each other intimately right then and that’s it, mission accomplished. We’re continually evolving and things are happening in our minds that change how we are feeling and how we see the world.
Q. Can you give examples of the kind of changes you’re talking about?
Maybe you find that you always seem to be feeling slightly depressed in the morning and you don’t know why. Or you have a good job that you should be satisfied with but you’re not.
You’re afraid to think about what that means, let alone talk about it. When you share those private thoughts and feelings, you allow the person you love to become a part of your life in a much more intimate way, and the two of you can creatively work together on dealing with whatever you’ve brought up.
Q. What’s the downside if you don’t have relationship checkups?
People often avoid this kind of conversation because they are afraid it will pull up stuff that could destabilize the relationship. But when you hold things in and just go on automatic pilot, that’s how you can end up in a situation where your partner comes home one day and out of the blue just says “I’m done.”
Only then do you start thinking back and realize that things had become a little cool between the two of you. Maybe you weren’t having sex as often, but nothing ever was said. What was kept in the background should have moved into the foreground.
Q. Are couples especially reluctant to talk about changes that affect the sexual aspect of their relationship?
You’d think people talk about it, but I’m telling you — they don’t. When women are breast-feeding or as they age, they’re not lubricating as well as they used to, which can make sex painful.
If women don’t explain that they’re having physical changes that require adding some kind of lubricant, their partners may feel they’re no longer sexually attractive to them.
The same is true when men are getting older and find it more difficult to get or maintain an erection. They need to just come out and say they need more or a different type of stimulation simply because their body is changing. Then the two of you can take it from there together.
Q. How often should you have a relationship checkup, and what’s the best way to introduce the idea to your partner?
You should set a date for a checkup at least once a year, but ideally, I’d recommend twice — maybe on your anniversary and then again around a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
When you’re first suggesting the idea, you do not want to start with: “There’s something we need to talk about.” No one wants to hear that sentence, which can trigger fear that what’s coming next is bad news.
But actually, an article like this one can be a great starting point for bringing the subject up. You can say something like: “Hey, I just read about something called a relationship checkup that sounds like something positive we could do for each other. It might be fun to set a date and try it out over a glass of wine or two.”
How and where you have your relationship checkup is up to you, but the most important thing is to agree on a date and make it happen.
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Andrea Rock is freelance journalist who specializes in health topics. Her work has earned her the American Academy of Family Physicians Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement In Reporting and Writing on Family Medicine and Health Care, the National Magazine Award for Journalism in the Public Interest, and the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting. She was a senior writer and editor for Consumer Reports for more than a decade, and is the author of The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Money, SELF, O Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal.