Revive A “Dead” Relationship

When you and your partner get stuck in a cycle of negativity and resentment, it’s tempting to declare that your relationship is officially over. Here, one author explains how to resuscitate the spark.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

ou’re on the verge of breaking up. Why? Because your relationship feels dead to you. You’re not in love anymore, you say. The two of you are fighting over everything and anything. The good feelings you once had just aren’t coming back. You’re thinking it’s hopeless. But are you sure?

Alisa Bowman was certain her marriage was dead. In fact, she was so finished with her
I read every book I could find about marriage.
relationship that she’d begun routinely fantasizing about her perfectly healthy husband’s funeral — right down to the lamb skewers and butternut squash soup that would be served at the reception afterwards. On other days, she found herself imagining what it would be like to divorce, dividing their property and their 401(k) accounts as she went about her daily chores.

In desperation, she finally turned to a divorced friend for advice. “She suggested I try to save my marriage,” Bowman says. “She told me that if my marriage did not improve or my husband refused to cooperate, then I would know with certainty that my marriage was doomed. So, I started a marriage improvement project.” Bowman charted the course of what turned out to be a very successful endeavor to save her marriage in her recently released book, Project: Happily Ever After. Today, Bowman shares with us what she learned about bringing a can’t-find-a-pulse relationship back to alive-and-kicking status.

What were some of the things you tried in order to make your marriage better?

I read every book I could find about marriage. I also researched things on the Internet, and I interviewed happily married friends. We tried exercises from books, that I learned from practicing meditation and yoga, and that I made up out of the blue. These ranged from me doing “Loving Kindness” meditations so I could forgive my husband to both of us trying this exercise called “the relaxed hug” to trying to get closer by talking about the meaning of life together.

Which things that you tried proved to be the most successful?

I learned how to communicate. This started with an exercise called “the speaker-listener technique,” which involved one of us talking while the other was listening. Then, the listener summarized the information that was shared. Over time, I modified and added a few tweaks to this technique. For instance, I’ve learned that my husband is less likely to get defensive if…
  • We’re not making eye contact when I confront him. I usually bring things up when we’re in the car, walking somewhere, or sitting side-by-side on the couch.
  • We’re touching each other. I often rest my hand on his thigh or on his forearm as I speak my truth.
  • I don’t sound angry. This took a lot of practice, but I’ve learned how to be assertive with a smile on my face and using a happy tone of voice.
  • I keep it short. He tunes out if I go on and on, and long diatribes tend to make him defensive, too. I’ve learned that I’m a lot more effective if I keep my requests no longer than three sentences.
  • I take the blame. Rather than fault him for what I want to accomplish, I try to fault myself. For instance, I might say, “I’m too tired to get [our daughter] ready for bed tonight. Could you do it for me?” Compare that to, “I’ve been working non-stop all day long and you’ve just been sitting there on the couch doing nothing. What’s wrong with you? Get off your butt and get her ready for bed.” Sure, the latter might be true, but the former is more likely to get my wish granted.
What exercises were the least successful?

Neither the “relaxed hug” or “meaning-of-life talk” exercises did much for us. With the “relaxed hug,” I was supposed to feel a profound connection with my husband. Instead, I just felt profoundly bored. When we tried to talk about the meaning of life, I realized that neither of us enjoys talking about that subject.

When did you begin to see your relationship turn around? What were the first signs?

The night after we did the first exercise on forgiveness, I held my husband’s hand for the first time in months — if not years. I could feel a connection to him that night. I felt at peace and even warm toward him. That was probably the beginning. That grew over time as I noticed him behaving differently. I would ask him to do something, and he would do it. For instance, I told him I’d appreciate it if he told me I was beautiful. Boy, did he take that request on with gusto! I also noticed him doing small things around the house — washing the dishes, vacuuming, doing the laundry. And we started having conversations again — real conversations. The cold fog of silence that had enveloped our house started to lift. We even started laughing together and smiling more.

When your relationship began to improve, did you start having those feelings of excitement that are associated with the beginning of a new relationship again, or was it more like a sense of calm happiness?

Well, it’s different than first love; I would describe it as feeling a deep connection. What I learned at the end of the project was this: my husband knows me better than anyone, and he loves me anyway. He might not have
He’s the person I want by my side during life’s hardest moments.
been there for me during a time in my life when I really needed him to be there, but he knows me better than even my own mother does. And now that my marriage is good, I can trust that he will be there for me. He is there for me; he understands me and supports me. It’s not the same feeling as that giddy sensation you have in the beginning. I would say it feels more like having an anchor, because you are no longer drifting endlessly. There’s a safe weight there in the relationship that’s keeping you from getting dragged out to sea.

What is your relationship like now?

I’d be lying if I told you everything was perfect all the time, but things are definitely better now than they’ve ever been. We laugh together; we chatter; we hug each other. We’re partners in every sense of that word. He’s the person I want by my side during life’s hardest moments.

Are there things you do now on a daily or weekly basis to keep your relationship healthy?

Yes, I’m constantly diagnosing my marriage. I notice any and all symptoms that might need to be addressed. For instance, lately, I haven’t been in the mood for sex, but that’s a symptom. I diagnosed that and realized that I’ve been too career-focused and stressed out lately, and I have not been taking care of myself. In years past, I would have just ignored something like this. Now, I notice it — and I do something about it.

What five tips would you give someone who is trying to revive a “dead” relationship?

1. Look in the mirror. How are you contributing to your relationship’s demise? This is a tough question. I know I didn’t want to admit that I was partially responsible for my marital problems. I seriously thought that they were all my husband’s fault. As it turned out, I was the root of our problems because I didn’t know how to be assertive without being confrontational.

2. Get over the idea of what’s fair and what’s not. You’ll probably have to lead your partner into a better relationship. It’s not fair, but it’s what works. Get used to asking yourself, “Do I want what’s fair, or do I want to be happy?” What will get you to a state of happiness is usually not fair at all.

3. Realize that your partner doesn’t enjoy making you miserable. Our minds love to put people in black-and-white categories of “good” and “evil.” In reality, most of us — except for serial killers and saints — fall somewhere in the middle. Your partner really isn’t evil, and he really does have some good qualities. Your mind, however, is constantly reinforcing your negative view of him. Go out of your way to notice the positives instead — especially the ways in which your partner is changing for the better. Otherwise, you might fool yourself into believing that your relationship is doomed. A few ways to do this include: a) Keeping a “gratitude journal” where you list all of the good things he does; b) writing each other love letters, including a list of all of the reasons you love each other; c) writing each other’s eulogies in which you list all of the reasons your partner rocks.

4. Warm things up through more positive interactions. You’ve probably been using negative reinforcement for years and it hasn’t worked. Now, it’s time to switch to positive reinforcement. Thank your partner every time he does something nice — no matter how minor. Compliment him. Touch him. Smile in his direction. These small gestures go an incredibly long way to thawing out the block of ice that can encase a stalled relationship.

5. Learn how to listen and communicate clearly. Love isn’t about reading each other’s minds. Rather, it’s about learning how to ask the right questions and listen to the answers you’re given so you’re aware of and understand what’s on each other’s minds. Your partner does not share your thoughts or feelings. That does not mean your partner doesn’t love you, or that your partner does not deserve your love. It only means that your partner is not you. Make the rest of your relationship an exercise in getting to know your spouse better.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine. Follow her blog at Learn more about Alisa Bowman and Project: Happily Ever After here.
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