THE SECRET TO STAYING IN LOVE
Seven couples reveal their recipes for keeping their bonds strong.
By Sara Eckel
Work That Counts
When Rod Forbes turned 40 last spring, he thought he'd be celebrating by listening to music at a local jazz bar with his buddies. Instead, he was the opening act. "I arranged for Rod's band, which had never played a live audience before, to open up for a local jazz band," says Rod's wife, Marydell. "I secretly mailed out invitations to out-of-town friends and family, who packed the room and shouted 'Surprise!' as Rod and his friends entered the club. Rod had a lot of fun pretending to be a rock star that weekend."
Relationship experts say the key to staying in love is to being willing to work at it, which can make long-term partnerships sound like a rather dreary enterprise. But Susan Piver, author of The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do" (Tarcher, 2004), says that the "work" of a relationship shouldn't be drudgery. Rather it should be the kind of joyful exertion that Marydell found in plotting her husband's 40th.
"If you love gardening, then the work is a joy, even when there are weeds and crappy weather. But if you hate gardening and even a ripe tomato plant isn't good news to you, then that sucks. I wouldn't want to be in that relationship," says Piver.
The challenge, of course, is finding the time to do that work. "We have very busy, economically demanding lives, and people don't have as much time to give to their relationships, because they're treading water themselves," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
But just as weeding and watering is essential to a healthy garden, taking time to communicate and listen to your partner is critical if you want your relationship to thrive. "Couples expect that they'll get to a place where things are predictable and stable. But things will always change, and that's what makes the relationship exciting and alive," says Piver.
So how much quality time do you and your partner need? Piver says it's a tricky question, as almost everyone's needs are different. She's also noticed that almost every couple squabbles over this issue more than any other. "One person always wants more time alone, while the other wants to devote more time to the relationship," say Piver.
But if each partner is willing to give a bit, and agree that you need to have some quiet time with each other each day, you've got a good start. The important thing is making sure you have some relaxed time to connect. "You want to make sure you have that time where you're sitting around with a cup of coffee, remembering why you love each other," says Schwartz.
Real Couples Reveal
So how do real couples stay in love? We asked seven happy couples for their secret:
Creating Grown-Up Time
Katie B. Wilkinson, 34, and Eric Wilkinson, 36, Seattle, Washington
Together for: 13 years, married for 7.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: Not making it all about the kids. "We're consumed and smitten with our two daughters, but we know that they will grow up and it will just be us two again," says Katie, who says that having children has actually improved their sex life, as it makes their time alone together more precious.
Advice to Other Couples: Have a standing date night, and take vacations without the kids. "An eight-day trip to the Four Seasons in a secluded spot in Mexico last month made us vow to vacation alone together once a year," says Katie.
Gestures of Love
Greg Risdahl, 44, and Aliza Sherman, 39, Laramie, Wyoming
Together for: 2 1/2 years
Our Secret to Staying in Love: Aliza says she and her man find small but meaningful ways to stay connected, like giving each other foot rubs and taking a quiet walk each morning. "We hold hands in bed when we wake up and at night before falling asleep. Just that small gesture of connection really keeps us feeling close," says Aliza.
Advice to Other Couples: Say, "I love you." Aliza says you can never say this too much. "We were both in previous relationships where we never said 'I love you' to our partners. Now we can't get enough or give enough of those three words," she says.
Attitude of Gratitude
Kevin Decker, 45, and Joy Decker, 40, Fairfax, Virginia
Together for: 12 years, married for 9.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: Kevin and Joy make sure to kiss for 10 full seconds. "It's amazing how this little tip has made our relationship closer," says Kevin.
Advice to Other Couples: Let your spouse know that they're appreciated. "When I take actions that say, 'Thank you,' it strengthens our romance," says Kevin, explaining that small gifts like flowers or a surprise day at the spa make Joy feel his gratitude.
Renewal of Faith
Gail Dukas, 35, and Richard Dukas, 41, Teaneck, New Jersey
Together for: 11 years, married 10 years.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: As Gail and Richard became more in tune with their Jewish heritage, they've found that the old customs can really helped with modern romance. For example, one custom has married couples refraining from sexual relations for a set time each month. "While we were skeptical at first, we've found that the period of abstinence lets us relate intellectually and emotionally -- and makes for great reunions!" says Gail.
Advice to Other Couples: Act as a team. "It's important for a couple to be a team when dealing with inevitable in-law issues' and other outside challenges," says Gail. Agreeing on everything, however, is not required.
You've Got Mail
Amanda Vega, 29, and Justin Vega, 31, Scottsdale, Arizona
Together for: Married for 4 years, nine months after meeting online.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: Because Justin is in his medical residency, Justin and Amanda have to deal with being apart for long stretches of time, even living in separate cities for a while. To bridge the gulf, they started e-mailing each other lists of all the times that they missed each other, that is, times when they've been apart and realized how much they longed to hear the other's laugh, or see their smile. "We keep many of them now, and can reference them if we ever get into a big fight," says Amanda.
Advice to Other Couples: Don't be joined at the hip. "Too many couples get into this weird dynamic where they let their friends or interests they had pre-marriage simply disintegrate when they get married," says Amanda, who says the ample time they each get with their friends keeps them fresh for each other.
Know Thy Partner
Dianne M. Daniels, 41, and Aaron Daniels, 42, Norwich, Connecticut
Together for: Married 14 years, after knowing each other (and dating on and off) for 25 years.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: Understanding what he/she needs to feel loved. "My husband prefers that we do activities together. Even if it's just watching a movie, he prefers to watch it lying on the couch with his head in my lap. I express my love for my family by doing things for them -- making dinner, folding their clothes unexpectedly," says Dianne, who feels loved when her husband does these thing for her, too.
Advice to Other Couples:Study your partner, and see what he or she responds to. "A man who responds well to compliments will also visibly shrink from a harsh word, so he needs extra care when his spouse speaks to him," says Dianne.
Rules of Engagement
Audrey Thomas, 43, and Tony Thomas, 46, Bloomington, Minnesota
Together for: 20 years, married for 18.
Our Secret to Staying in Love: "We read a book together on marriage and discuss each chapter as we go," says Audrey. This ensures that they will have a time each day when they can connect with each other's intellect, rather than just mindlessly going through daily tasks like cleaning up after dinner or paying bills. This helps them stay engaged with each other's intellect, rather than mindlessly going through the day.
Advice to Other Couples: Make sure your time together really is quality time. "Going to a movie doesn't count as it isn't engaging and doesn't allow for conversation," says Audrey.
Of course, there are no guaranteed strategies for staying in love. All couples must find their own "secret." And that's the fun of it, says Piver. "It's an incredible mystery," she says. "A long relationship has to weather many storms. Sometimes it's sunny and beautiful, and sometimes it doesn't matter what you do -- it's going to sleet and hail. That's why you need stay open to each other no matter what the weather."