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Video: Keeping the spark alive

By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 7/15/2009 12:11:56 PM ET 2009-07-15T16:11:56

Being in a long-term relationship isn’t easy: It not only takes a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of transparency. For example, at any given time, my wife can text me, e-mail me, ping me, call me on the cell, try me on the home line, or sometimes just walk into the next room if she’s feeling particularly energetic and say, “Hey, we need kale.”

But while relationships require transparency and dependability — not to mention kale — they also require the opposite: unpredictability and mystery. Therein lies the relationship rub: How do we share everything with our partners and yet also remain mysterious and unpredictable?

In the spirit of that ever-expanding grocery list we call marriage, here are my personal Top 10 relationship requirements for not just crossing the threshold together into married life, but also staying there:

Maintain your individuality.
Relationships paradoxically require separateness as much as they do togetherness. From your career to your friends to maintaining your own personal passions and interests, being a strong couple requires being a strong individual. Relationships stop growing when the people in those relationships stop growing. So don’t merge, emerge.

Share the chores.
(This is actually one for the guys, and a selfish one at that.) Researchers in the Netherlands found that “the key to female arousal seems to be deep relaxation and a lack of anxiety.” In a study in which the brains of men and women were scanned during the process of sexual response using a technique called positron emission tomography (PET), the results showed that the parts of the female brain responsible for processing anxiety reduce during sexual activity. Says Dr. Gert Holstege, “What this means is that deactivation might be the most important thing, even necessary, to have an orgasm.” So help reduce some of that anxiety by pitching in and putting yourself in front of a stack of dirty dishes.

Stay positive.
Studies show that the difference between those relationships that succeed and those that fail is the ability to have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions. It’s actually believed that the ratio should be 5 to 1 — five positive interactions for every negative one. Of course you can’t go through life tallying every interaction, but you can know whether you’re fundamentally in positive or negative territory and start swinging the pendulum back to where it belongs.

Express, don’t suppress.
Confrontation naturally triggers the brain’s “fight or flight response,” and most men respond by fighting, which raises heart rate, increases blood pressure and plays a role in chronic stress and heart disease. In women, the opposite reaction, flight, can be just as harmful: This self-silencing and bottling-up of emotions leads to stress, anxiety, depression and a cascade of unhealthy behaviors. So next time you find yourself wanting to fight or take flight, instead just take a deep breath and let those gut responses pass through. Then start talking.

Cheer, don’t coach.
From dealing with money to managing a household to keeping a family running, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a pattern of “coaching” each other, when what we really need is a little praise from our partner. Too often, we feel like it’s us against the world, and knowing our partner is on our team and believes in us can make all the difference. No one’s telling you to pick up a pair of pom-poms, but if your face is constantly scrunched up like an umpire’s, it’s time to introduce some praise into the game.

Keep finding things to talk about.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to feel that communication is a chore, that talking to your partner is boring or routine and that there’s nothing new under the sun to possibly talk about. When you’re feeling this way (when you’re nodding and half-listening and don’t have real interest in how your partner’s day went), you’re in serious danger of getting too detached and disconnected, and becoming vulnerable to things like infidelity, depression and indifference.

Know when to call a truce and hug.
Sometimes a simple touch takes us where words cannot go. Studies show that even a 20-second hug raises oxytocin levels in both men and women. The “cuddle hormone” helps us to feel calm and connected to our partner. So when words fail you, go for that 20-second hug.

Have sex once a week.
Everyone always asks me what’s the right amount of sex a healthy couple should be having, and I think once a week minimum keeps you tuned in and connected. Sex is a barometer of your overall relationship. To do it regularly you have to have the kind of relationship that supports that.

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TODAY conducted a poll in conjunction with iVillage.com in regard to how long some people have gone without sex, and the results were startling: 30 percent said a few months, 24 percent said a few years, 22 percent said about a year, 13 percent just a few weeks and 11 percent can’t go more than a few days. Some studies estimate that nearly 50 million Americans are stuck in a rut. Sex may only be about 20 percent of a relationship, but it’s pretty hard to enjoy the other 80 percent when you’re not doing it.

Be selfish about your relationship.
Couples have a lot of combined obligations and responsibilities, way more than you ever had as individuals: to children, to family and friends, and it’s easy to put everyone else first as you try to maintain a master schedule. Don't stop putting your relationship first: From date nights to vacations to making time for each other, stay selfish. Happiness trickles down to everyone in your life and starts and stops with you.

As for my last tip: Don’t forget to buy the kale.

Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including "She Comes First" and "Love in the Time of Colic." He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife and two sons. He can be reached at www.iankerner.com.

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