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6 smart rules to improve your relationship

These days, more and more couples are seeking premarital counseling and taking steps to safeguard their marriage. What can they do to help secure their relationships? In this month’s “Cosmopolitan” magazine, “22 Best Relationship Tips Ever" covers everything from communication to intimacy to sex. Kate White, Cosmo’s editor-in-chief, and Dr. Dale Atkins, author of "Sanity Savers: Tips for

These days, more and more couples are seeking premarital counseling and taking steps to safeguard their marriage. What can they do to help secure their relationships? In this month’s “Cosmopolitan” magazine, “22 Best Relationship Tips Ever" covers everything from communication to intimacy to sex. Kate White, Cosmo’s editor-in-chief, and Dr. Dale Atkins, author of "Sanity Savers: Tips for Women to Lead a Balanced Life," expound on six specific rules below:

Why do couples seek counseling now more than before?

Kate: People are aware today as they go into relationships that it's not necessarily going to be "happily ever after." You just have to look around and see that a good percentage of relationships end in divorce, so people don't have a fatalistic sense, but certainly they are not naive either.

I think there is a combination of things. Marriage is trickier because we have a lot of changes in the roles couples play today. We definitely see that with guys for the first time. A fairly high percentage of men make less than their wives. The roles have changed, and that adds a certain craziness to it.

We also have a huge percentage of readers who want a soul mate. There was a point in time when you thought that your girlfriends would provide one thing, you mom would provide another, and that now we expect our spouses to be our best friends, and our providers and our lovers.

Dale: People are finding that they are facing challenges they don't know how to handle, and there are not a lot of really good models around. Marriage is more challenging today because people are so busy and not dedicating their time and attention to their spouse and relationship. People also don't understand that marriage is work. It takes energy.

1. Change it up

Act out of character — you can easily get into ruts. If you find that you are repeating patterns, step back and break it up. Be somewhat still unknown to each other. After all, if you are BFF, soul mates, know each other "like the back of my hand," what fun and mystery is that? You want to know there will be surprises. We are hardwired as humans to like mystery and be intrigued by it. There is a juiciness and an excitement that come from not knowing. When you first get a crush on someone, the thrill is in not knowing if he will be there, if he is going to call, the unknown — it's delicious.

Dale: You have to put energy into it because you want to grow with the person. Everybody changes. You have to put your best stuff out there and share it with your partner. Too often, people put their best selves out there to their work colleagues or to their friends, but then they are at home in their sweats. People don't have to walk around at home in high heels and makeup, but they should be conscious of being present and being in good shape and looking great for your spouse. Make sure that all of these parts of yourself are accessible to your mate. If you give it all at the office but are a pain in the ass at home, no one wants to be with you.

2. Talk it out

Sometimes we have to learn different communication skills than we know. What works with one boyfriend certainly doesn't work with another. You have to alter your communication for what works best with this person and this relationship.

I don't know if you can come right out and say to a guy, "Look, we are going to take turns talking." But you can give him a chance to open up and then turn the tables a little bit. Maybe you say something like, "That makes a lot of sense, something like that happened to me," and then share your own revelation.

It's also important when communicating to echo each other. A lot of times when you are in a relationship for a few years, you are multitasking when you are talking. You may be throwing dinner together, packing a school lunch. So when you are really talking together, a great technique is to repeat what he says. If he is talking about a guy at work that came storming in and accused him of something, tell him, "That must have been really rattling." It validates his emotion and also says, I am listening!!

Dale: It's understandable that if you didn't have a good model growing up, you will have to learn how to communicate better. One thing you want to communicate is what you appreciate about your spouse. You have to compliment them from your heart.

It also makes sense that if someone is only criticized; they are not going to want to listen. Communication is also not just talking. It's nurturing the relationship with thoughts, with words, with eye movement, with facial expression ... so be conscious of how you are communicating in every manner.

left/msnbc/Sections/TVNews/Today show/Today Relationships/2007/October/Cosmo-Nov07.jpg2960129000left#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.com1Pfalsefalse3. Be tolerant

One thing that is so great to do is to turn over and flip the things you don't like. If you hate the fact that he shouts at the TV, the flip side is that he is a passionate person about you and the kids. Try and find the upside, or go back and think about all the positives you saw in him.

Dale: Everybody has their stuff and you have yours, too. If you only focus on the bad things, you really are going to be unhappy. You have to understand that you are not going to change anybody. As long as no one is devaluing you or treating you badly, then you have to be tolerant.

And if they are devaluing you, you need to change your attitude and not stand for it. If it is demeaning, then you have to say, "I know what you want, but the way you are asking me or demanding it of me is not something I am going to be able to respond to." You have to tolerate what is not intolerable, but you didn't marry the person to change them.

4. It takes time

Women sometimes feel that it's unromantic if you have to make time for sex. But it's important. You still have to schedule time for it. Cuddling is not enough, even if you have a good feeling in your relationship.

And in this day and age, it's important to call a time-out on technology. You need to have periods at night where it's just off-limits. Even if your boss has to track you down, you need to let it go and just focus on your partner.

Dale:  So many of the couples I see have intrusions in their relationships. It's typically kids and ill parents, but now it's mostly technology. People develop online relationships with work mates or friends, but so many people are making choices to IM and are on BlackBerry, which is time they could be using to connect with their partners. We have the capacity to connect with hundreds of people at a moment's notice, but what does that do to a primary relationship? You have to say there is a BlackBerry-free zone or time, or go out for the night and leave the phones at home.

We have become very addicted to this. And if you do send a BlackBerry message, you expect one right back. And then if you don't get it, you think you are being dissed.

We also do have to make time for sex. With people commuting and working so hard and being so stressed, it's hard to keep that high up there on the list. But it is essential to be sexual, and it just reminds you of another connection you have to that person that no other person has, that is uniquely yours. You don't want it to go by the wayside. You determine aspects of each other during sexual intimacy that you don't see in other ways.

Sometimes inertia takes over but what you want to do is keep working at it and trying to be sensuous. Even if you don't have sex, keep touching, keep being playful and remind each other what it's like to be aroused. And take off those flannel pajamas — it's very important to be skin to skin. There doesn't have to be mad sexual passion all the time, there just has to be connection.

5. Continue the courtship

You need to do the things that you loved when you first met: go to galleries, take long walks. It's the little things, the token gestures, the ways that you show them that you know them THAT well.

And you have to have nice dates — it cannot just be Olive Garden and a movie.

Dale: Think about what made it unique when you were first together. There was a sexual connection; you had pet names, inside jokes. One of the things about being a couple is that you share a history, so you can say, remember this song or when we danced. You want to create new memories and also go back to the old ones, the gentle connection that you had. Remember that you really ARE invested in each other — you have a commitment. Those are things that help couples stay connected.

6. Steer clear

Realize that the louder you get doesn't mean that you'll be listened to more. Pay attention to what doesn't work with your partner and don't repeat those things.

Money matters frequently blow up for people — it's important to think about these things and work them out.

Some couples pride themselves on never arguing, but that is not healthy. Everyone has issues and if you are not arguing, you are probably not addressing them.

Don't expect him to read your mind. Give him hints. There is nothing wrong with that. Tell him what you want when you want it. If you want sappy on Valentine's Day... if you want a party for your birthday... earrings for Christmas. You have to tell him so that you get what you want.

Dale: Make sure you don't avoid the difficult stuff — you have to find a way to talk about everything. Don't put the other person down, don't belittle them. You have to talk about the big things ... the kids' school, or how much money to spend on a vacation, or who will take care of your aging mother, or who is paying bills for a drug-addicted cousin; you have to talk about them. If you don't, these issues just get bigger and bigger, so you must find ways to talk about difficult topics.

Also, don't blame, don't punish, don't use past mistakes to harp on your partner.

And the biggest mistake is in not sharing your deepest self. This is why people have office romances. They think the other person understands them. But it's really you shutting down and not sharing inner thoughts and feelings with the person you have committed to share your life with. Chances are you might be having a bad patch, and you want to get back into it.

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