By Suzanne Burger

Couples whom I work with in marital therapy are often surprised by my response to their first question: “how long will we need to work with you to save our marriage?” I often tell them that while they may be coming to sessions with me for as little as three to six months, they will need to work hard at their marriage forever.

It strikes me as naïve and even a bit peculiar that we expect our most important relationship to work flawlessly and effortlessly, with no maintenance let alone additions, improvements or modifications. Doesn’t every thing else that we value, from our health to our homes to our cars require conscientious time and effort? We take it for granted that without a regular trip to the fitness center, our muscles will weaken, our abdomens grow soft and flabby. Most of us routinely check the oil in our cars, rotate the tires, and replace dirty filters. Yet we neglect to check our partner’s mood or fail to update (let alone upgrade) worn ways of spending time together.

So, what are some simple maintenance routines that couples can develop? Studies have found that successful marriages have a ratio of 5 positive exchanges to every negative one. It’s not that happy couples don’t bicker or fight. It’s that they have enough positive reserves to withstand the loss of safety, intimacy and acceptance that fights often produce. So, the single most important task for couples is to build up that positive reserve by regularly pointing out the ways in which they appreciate each other. This can range from a simple “thank you for taking my shirts to the dry cleaners” to “you are so wonderful at playing with the kids.” Building a culture of appreciation and gratitude goes a long way towards maintaining a strong and happy marriage.

A second important habit for couples to develop is checking in, or, as John Gottman, Ph.D. puts it, maintaining “love maps.” Many professions require continuing education classes while businesses regularly ask their employees to participate in training and development programs. This keeps people up to date on the latest innovations and changes in their field. Marriage requires a similar commitment. It’s important to know what’s happening with your wife’s latest account at work or your husband’s newfound interest in martial arts or cooking. Intimacy and connection are partly built upon sharing the details of one’s daily experience.

The third recommendation for strengthening marriages through regular routines may be the most challenging because it requires something that, for so many today, is lacking: time. Yet, in choosing to spend an hour hiking on weekends, cooking together or even playing a board or card game together, couples are affirming the primacy of their marriage in their lives. Unfortunately, many couples speak of the importance of their partner but end up putting their marriage at the bottom of their list of priorities and values. They fail to put their money where their mouth is. Making a commitment to share time and activities may require a sacrifice of other interests. It may mean having Jenna play one rather than two sports, leaving the basement unfinished or stepping away from the computer or TV on a Sunday afternoon. Ultimately both the couple and the family will benefit more from the decision to make the marriage the first priority, at least on occasion.