By Dr. John Delony
On my show, I often take calls from people in sexless marriages, people struggling with attraction after their partner’s weight gain, or people who don’t like who they are in their relationship. I talk to couples who are exhausted, frustrated, bored—and even people who are doing well, but they’re flinching, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You see, most of us were only taught how to fall in love the first time—back when we had six-pack abs and endless energy. But relationships are all about falling in love with each other repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. We don’t know how to stay strong through decades of big transformations and small, daily transitions, which is where things usually start to break down. The key to remaining connected is this: Instead of staying stuck in the past, commit together to build something new.
Why? Because over time, everything in your relationship will change. Everything. Things won’t feel the way they used to. There’s no such thing as getting back to how things were. And using the past as a barometer for how your relationship should look is going to fail. You must intentionally embrace each new season of life. Think of yourself as an architect, not an archeologist.
So, if the key to keeping your relationship strong is to build something new, how does that work? I’m not a fan of three-step plans or life formulas, but in this case, it makes sense. If you want to strengthen your relationship and cocreate a future you love, here are three simple steps to start the process:
- Acknowledge what is. You must step out of denial and confront reality. That means being vulnerable and saying things like, “I miss how we used to flirt,” or “I feel like your job has become more important than me.” If the thought of saying those things makes you feel sick, that’s normal. Being vulnerable requires risk, but it’s the only way forward.
I have two pieces of advice here. First, don’t try to have this conversation when you’re in a fight or when you’re angry. Confronting reality should never be an attack, and vulnerability should never be weaponized. Second, when someone is being vulnerable, you have to say, “Thank you for sharing.” No rebuttals. No excuses. No sulking. This is the time to listen quietly and let the other person speak—not to find a way to win the discussion. Remember: You’re on the same team.
- Grieve what was. We often think grief is a big event—like the sudden loss of a loved one or job. But grief is so much more than a big event. Grief is the gap between what you expected or hoped would happen and what actually happened. It’s the heartache you feel when you miss how things were. It’s the fear you feel about beginning the next chapter.
Some grief is bigger than others. But if you want your relationships to survive the thousands of changes life will throw at you, you must grieve what was—even if the new things aren’t bad. Maybe you loved going to concerts together, but now you’re in bed by nine every night. Maybe you never thought they’d develop a chronic illness, but it happened, and it’s devastating. Grieving isn’t going to be fun, but it’s necessary to honor what was. You have to choose to set it down so you can pick up what’s next together.
- Own what happens next. Now that you’ve both said, “Here’s what I miss,” and “Here’s what I thought was going to happen and didn’t,” you get to say, “Here’s what happens next!” You can’t edit the stories of the past, but you can write new ones.
Maybe you can’t go to late night concerts anymore, but you love going on hikes with your family. Or no, he can’t help around the house the way he did before the illness, but you’re learning new ways to serve one another.” Whatever it looks like, take heart: This is when you regain your power and your strength.
Be patient with one another in this process. No one told you when you got married that it was the just the first of a hundred phases of building something new. Yes, it’s hard, but every minute of the work it takes to embrace change and build a strong relationship is worth it.