Marry Like You Mean It

Making room for marriage in your very crowded life

By Jessica Huddy

When life does not offer stability, many of us hope that the foundation of our marriage, at least, will be a constant. But sometimes stability and boredom can seem like a package deal, and when partners don’t pay close attention, what begins as a promise of eternal love can devolve into simply sharing the same condo.

Most often it’s not obvious neglect that sidelines our relationship with our spouse. On any given weekday, the tasks that come together to fill our calendars are much more straightforward than the promises carved out on a whirlwind day, spent in a white dress, all those years ago.

How can I give time to my marriage? is a huge question that can be answered in an infinite number of subjective ways. By comparison, How do I get these expense reports completed on time? is a much smaller, more manageable question that can be tackled with an obvious course of action. It’s easier to postpone the big questions.

When it comes to prioritizing your marriage within the context of your busy life, it can help to approach that big issue by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. Here are some steps to consider—with the very busy person in mind.

  • Look each other in the eyes. This may seem like a given—until you find yourself at home with your spouse after a long day, responding to your fourteenth consecutive email. As you shoot off each message, another takes its place. Every sickly sweet chirp of your smartphone intensifies your anxiety. Somewhere in the middle of this, you realize that your husband has asked you what you want for dinner. But as you move on to the next email, you send his question to the back of your mind. Oh, he can wait, you think, feeling slightly annoyed that he spoke to you at all.

But wait. This is passive dismissal, and it is a sneaky habit. Take one second to pause, look up, smile, and acknowledge him. This small gesture is the difference between I can’t be bothered and I hear you.

  • In keeping with this, explain and acknowledge your distraction. When you don’t explain what you’re thinking, you leave it up to interpretation. Words like, “I’m sorry, Sweetheart. I have so many emails and they keep coming in. I feel like I’m treading water. I didn’t mean to ignore you,” are preventive measures against future passive aggression.

When you’re standing in the same room, miles apart, usually there’s no crisis at hand. More often the culprit is a collection of small problems that went unresolved. We all speak in terms of both what we say and what we don’t say.

  • Take a break from talking about logistics. When all of your interactions are information exchange, communication becomes impersonal. Your spouse is your co-captain, but that is not their sum total. When you’re done addressing the humdrum, ask your husband a question that presents the opportunity for a deeper connection: What brought him joy that day? What does he think is the most unpopular opinion he holds? Then let him ask you. Enjoy the chance to discover something new about your partner or confirm the qualities that brought you together in the first place.
  • Schedule quality time. There’s a reason why communication around work and kids has the tendency to take over our conversations with our spouse: our schedules are drawn around them. To counter the weight of these responsibilities and prioritize time as a couple, apply the same logic to your quality time as you would to balancing the kids’ soccer games and college move-in day: plan it. Pick the date, the time, and the activity and be specific. Get the practical concerns covered beforehand so that they won’t come back to bite you later. Then stick to your plans.
  • Make texting a friend of your marriage. In between texts about when your husband will be home or what the doctor said about Henry’s cough, send a message on a more personal note—a word of encouragement for the big meeting or a quick “You look really great today; I love that blue button-up on you” can make a big impact. In a few quick words, you demonstrate that you’re thinking of your spouse when they’re not around. More important, you show that you’re thinking about the person you fell in love with, not the co-parent, not the lease cosigner, but the person.
  • Surprise each other—routinely. Don’t confuse surprise with spend money or use up large amounts of time. Here surprise means “shake up the routine.” Flirt with your spouse (yes, flirt). Start in on some witty banter when he’s not expecting it. Pick up his favorite beer while you’re getting groceries and stock the fridge. Pen a quick letter of thanks for his help during your years in graduate school, when he took care of the apartment nearly single-handedly. Remember that romance is not created in grand gestures alone and that “busy” and “romantic” aren’t incompatible.
  • Learn and serve together. The same brain chemistry at play in the early stages of romance can be reinvigorated by new experiences. Many couples reach a romantic stalemate when they think to themselves, We know everything about each other. Turn your mutual (or individual) interests outward and learn something new. Tale a cooking class, learn a new sport or language together, or teach your partner how to do something you’re already good at—and let him teach you something he enjoys.

Showing interest in your spouse’s interests is a loving act. Giving time and attention to learn or teach a skill falls under this same category. Taking on leadership roles lets you see one another in a new light. Impress each other with your talent for painting, biking, or driving a car with a manual transmission. If the skill is practical, teaching it to or learning it from your spouse may make your lives easier in direct, specific ways. Either way, you’ll definitely have something new to talk about.

Another great way to impress each other? Team up for a good cause. Research local opportunities to volunteer at a soup kitchen, an animal shelter, or any venue that serves a cause you admire.

Your marriage is carried with you in every moment—from the grand, sweeping milestones to any average Tuesday. Making the most of the time you’re given is a form of inventing time. Just as you would make room for the board meeting or the kids’ pool party, make space for marriage—even if there is none. In your busy life, you’re bound to be part of a lot of things that matter—this will always include your marriage.

Jessica Huddy is a doctoral student of clinical psychology, as well as the assistant clinical director and the director of curricula for Cognition Builders, an educational company that designs individualized, home-based programs to suit its clients’ specific needs. Jessica leads the development of programs and protocols for clients, for whom she also implements strategy for behavioral change. In real time Jessica provides behavior and language modification to engender her clients’ intrapersonal and interpersonal growth. In her personal life, she loves poetry (both reading and writing it), music, and amateur photography.