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Time to give your relationship a tune-up

Couples can strengthen their bond by taking the time to regularly assess their relationship.

entertainment Updated: Sep 25, 2010 16:24 IST

The daily demands of working, raising a family and running a household often prevent a couple from doing what's best for their relationship. While we'll tune up our cars every 4,000 miles, visit the dentist semi-annually and schedule yearly air-conditioning maintenance, we often fail to perform the same kind of routine maintenance work on our marriages and long-term relationships.

Big mistake. Here are a few pointers to help you fine tune-your relationship with your significant other.

"Are you the type of person who wants to solve it right now, or are you someone who avoids conflict at all costs?" asks Amy Smalley, marriage consultant with the Smalley Marriage and Family Center in The Woodlands, Texas. "If you're an avoider, you should learn to share your feelings more. But if you're the type, like me, who wants to solve it immediately, you need to ask yourself if it's really that big of a deal."

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Remember, when conflict rears its ugly little head, try not to over-dramatize the issue. You may simply be having a bad day. Not sure if you tend to over- or under-confront? Ask your best friend, says Smalley. And trust that person's opinion. At the same time, remember that if something is creating resentment and anger between you and your mate, you need to let the other person know about it. Don't let it fester.

This doesn't mean you have to change your own opinions, says Smalley. Instead try to find win-win solutions. "For instance, my husband can be very sarcastic, and I don't like it because I think it's demeaning," she says. "But my husband considers it a way to bond, and I can't say that his opinion is wrong."

What's their win-win solution? He agreed not to use sarcasm around her but to reserve it for the times he spends with friends and other family members. "The important thing is to value the person more than you want to prove yourself right or the other person wrong," Smalley says.

Mike and Megan James of Dublin, Ohio, are busy raising their three children at the same time they're each running their own business. "Life moves fast, and it's easy to take each other for granted when the demands of daily life absorb so much of your time," Megan says. "So we try not to forget the simple things, like saying please and thank you."

"This is how you build an emotional bank account," says Renay Bradley, Ph.D., director of research at the Gottman Relationship Research Institute in Seattle. "You don't have to buy your spouse a new TV or a diamond ring. You might simply say, 'Thanks so much for picking up the kids today.'" Couples who have a good emotional bank account with plenty of mutual respect probably won't focus on the negative when an argument occurs. Overall they have a more positive perspective, which means they'll be less likely to throw in the towel during rocky times.

Nagging and harsh criticism rarely accomplish anything. Instead, approach matters with a soft, gentle approach. Nancy Hoinski of Colleyville, Texas, learned quickly that this helps to get the point across when she needs her husband to pitch in with common household chores. "I'm a real estate agent, and when I get home from working on a Saturday, it certainly helps if the dishes are done," she says. "If they're not, I calmly say, 'It looks like the dishes aren't done. That really upsets me because I want to get dinner started. It would be really great if you could help me get that done.'"

This soft approach is likely to get a better response, according to Bradley. "Provide a neutral description of the problem, followed by what you're feeling in relation to the problem, and then end it with your needs," she explains.

Andy and Meredith Diamond of Columbus, Ohio, make Tuesday their regular date night. "It helps to have a set night, otherwise there's a tendency to want to use the time to get things done," Andy says. "Instead, we keep that night sacred for the two of us."

"Even if you can't get away, make time for a private conversation every day," says Melinda Hill, family and consumer sciences educator with the Ohio State University Extension. "During this time, don't talk about bills, work or the kids; just talk about each other." Remember, it's not about how much time you spend together, but that the time you do spend together is quality. "You were drawn to that person in the beginning because you liked something about him or her," says Smalley. Try to rekindle that friendship.