Five Minute Sherpa

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Nine Powerful Words for Preventing Relationship Wars

via Flickr user Moisuer J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jblndl/283365812/in/photolist-r3jMs-5sRGHP-njCh3-eSUGjE-eKBfkL-9smjfA-8SMsiN-pRN6Bw-9UJ6Gp-7XNfeC-9RVMBg-8QSCVZ-fu57be-9UMcSy-9ULPDW-eDmWUC-9UJ6qZ-7T2DaQ-9ULYm5-pVfPwB-tYaGp-7LVXb1-qSc5uH-dsY76X-4hxSUV-7sX1tC-9ULL8u-8a6MDw-8SJot4-4XMkHt-e4yzyQ-6RfEbc-cZdHk1-8SJo4n-dEk6VG-9QvyW5-9UM94S-fKkBA3-8QgxKx-9ULY79-hKs6LB-9UMd6Q-9ULNxS-7keA6j-9UHZVB-bbud8c-9UHWfX-e7TneH-9UJaga-7enP1m

A couple recently asked me a question about fighting: “We’ve been together for almost 2 years and have not had a fight. What do you think about this?” My response was two-fold. First, what is your definition of a fight? Some of us think of a fight as yelling, screaming, throwing things, etc. A fight for others might be stonewalling, silent punishment, or ignoring the other person. The second part of my answer is that someone, most likely both of them, is lying. Maybe not overtly lying about something, but not fully telling the truth about where they’ve been hurt in the relationship. You can’t be in relationships for any extended period of time without hurting them, or without being hurt.

We can’t avoid hurting people, but we can prevent these hurts from turning into harms, and relationship wars. Want to know how to avoid war? Say these 9 words to the people that matter the most to you:

“I was wrong. How can I make this right?”

That’s it.

Don’t text it. Say it out loud. (As a side note, don’t text anything of substance — texting is too easy, impersonal, and non-vulnerable to say something important)

Don’t try to substitute those 9 words with the generic phrase: “I’m sorry” (which is usually not an apology, but a request for the offended party to be quiet. The word “sorry” means to be “sorrowful.” When we say “I’m sorry,” if it’s true, it needs to mean that “I am full of sorrow for my actions.”). Sorry is a watered down word that rarely means much in intimate relationships.

Don’t judge or shame the offended party’s hurt by telling them what you did wasn’t that big of a deal, or that they shouldn’t feel hurt.

Don’t defend your actions. Let me say that again with emphasis: DO NOT DEFEND. The moment you enter into a defense about why what you said/did wasn’t intended to hurt/be interpreted/etc, you begin the process of declaring war on the other party. The war becomes about figuring out who’s right, and who’s wrong. Defending is the quickest way to escalate a potentially peaceable situation into an all out battle.

Sometimes we people do things that are so hurtful, or harmful, that there isn’t anything we can do to make it right. Those are the situations that need patience, time, grace, and many many conversations. For example, an affair in a marriage cannot be made right in any short amount of time. But over an extended period of time, forgiveness can occur and then reconciliation happens. It is never the offender’s prerogative to dictate the amount of time forgiveness takes.

As with anything in life, if our intention (known or unknown) is control, manipulation, or self-protection, we can abuse the goodness of a phrase like “I was wrong, how can I make it right” and turn it into a way to get something we want.

Admitting you’re wrong is humbling, but it is endearing to the person your have wronged. Asking how you can, if possible, make right the wrong makes you an ally of the person you’ve hurt, not an enemy.

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Making Peace with DMZ’s in Marriage

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I’m sure you’ve seen it in a movie, or on the news. The scene is this: Some country breaks the demilitarized zone with an aircraft or some other object. The other country interprets this as an act of war and promptly opens fire on object, destroying it before it has a chance to hurt them. You don’t step foot into the DMZ unless you’re wanting to die, or start an all-out war.

Unfortunately, many marriages are setup like warring countries. There are tragedies, betrayals, and offenses that have gone unresolved. These stories become the DMZ between the couple. As one woman said in my office last week, “he had an affair 8 years ago, we never talked about it then, and we’re not going to talk about it now.”

The bottom line is this: Marriages will not survive DMZ’s. The moment a story is placed in the “off limits” category, knowingly or unknowingly, the couple has declared war on intimacy, trust, and forgiveness — all components of thriving relationships. When a DMZ is established, the individual parties begin looking out for the best interest of themselves, and only look at the other person from a distance.

So, how do countries stabilize war and DMZ’s? I’m not all that studied on international diplomacy, but ultimately it comes down to one word: Peace. Enemies must make peace with one another for war to end.

Here’s how you start this process in marriage.

– Take your shoes off, literally. The DMZ in your marriage is holy ground. It’s where blood has been spilled, death has been seen, and hope has been lost. We bring silence and respect when entering a place of mourning. Taking your shoes off puts your feet in bare contact with the physical ground, and terrain. You’re more sensitive to what you’re walking on without your shoes.

– Drop your weapons. You don’t walk into a peace treaty meeting with a machine gun. What are the weapons you use in marriage? Contempt? Stonewalling? Name calling? Calling it like you see it? Avoidance? Manipulation? Control? Rage? Regardless of the weapon, leave it at the door.

– Unfold your arms. Our body language tells others everything they need to know to make a judgement about how we’re approaching the situation. By crossing your arms or legs, you’re signaling defensiveness and being closed off. Defensiveness is a support of DMZ’s, not a way to make peace.

– Listen twice, speak once. The reality is most of us do not listen very well. We’re generally more interested in forming our rebuttal than allowing the words, emotions, and energy to get to us. Before you respond with what you want to say, reflect back to the other person the actual words they spoke and ask if you heard everything correctly (ie- “I heard you say you feel like I don’t like you, and that I care more about work than I care about you, is that right?).

– Slow down. Take deep breaths to slow down your heart rate. This decreases the chances of your fight or flight response from taking over. Relax your jaw, your fists, and breath. It may sound hokey, but slowing your heart rate will better allow you to view the other person as a friend, not a foe.

– Listen to your senses. What do you smell, see, and feel (physically)? In fights or places of tension, we are generally being reactive to something from the past (see #4 – fight/flight). Practicing awareness of our senses brings us into the present moment, and helps to bring clarity.

– Practice offering gratitude. If you’re not offering thanks to your spouse for their efforts to bring peace, peace will not come. Be wary of how entitlement cheats gratitude (“she should know better…”, or “I shouldn’t have to tell you this…”). If you can’t find something to be thankful for, the issue is with you, not the other person.

The saying is true: “It takes two to tango,” but it only takes one person to change the way they are dancing to invite the other to do the same. I’ve seen it dozens of times where one person has offered peace to an unwilling and defensive participant, and it changes the relationship. Don’t wait for the other person to change first, they are likely waiting for the same thing.

The above picture is “a view from the Dora Observatory in Korea. The DMZ (and beyond it, North Korea) is visible through the haze. (photo via flickr user Ben Kucinski)

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The Invitation of Advent

I don’t know all of what Mary feared, but I can guess she had plenty. An unwed pregnant woman was not what it is today. She had good reasons to be afraid, as did Joseph, Zechariah, and the Shepherds. The Angels spoke directly to them, saying the same thing regarding the coming of Jesus: “be not afraid.” They were afraid, with good reason, and so are we.

My guess is that your fears are similar to mine. Fears of being seen or unseen: The reality that I can bear neither the pain of your rejection, nor the intimacy of your staying with me. Fears of being enough, of my value: Good enough for love, acceptance, forgiveness, or even something as simple as a hug from someone I have hurt. Fears about safety, stability, and self-control. Regardless of the fears, it’s a shining star illuminating the need for something greater.

The Angels command to not be afraid foreshadowed the coming of Peace. We are reminded in 1 John 4 that perfect love casts out all fear. Advent is the birthplace of perfect love, of God’s peace.

Advent is an opportunity to allow God’s peace to enter into our lives. But just like any other physical container, we have to remove the current contents before we can fill it up with something new. I don’t have to look too far into my life to see that I’ve filled much of my space with things like some of the fears I mentioned earlier. To allow for peace, I have to have space.

Advent’s invitation is about space. This season, the question is: Will you make room?

There was no space for Jesus’ birth in the hotels, B&B’s, or even the dilapidated truck-stop motels. There was only room in the stable, the barn. This is the place in the Advent story for us to consider what areas of our lives are too full for Jesus. The hotels and other establishments are too sensible and upscale for an unwed mother in childbirth. I imagine the innkeepers felt similar to the way I do during a church service with my kids are doing somersaults on the chairs during the doxology. The message is clear: “Go away, you’re not welcome here.”

Not all the rooms of our life need to be occupied. We need to leave space, to allow emptiness. I can’t think of a more difficult challenge than to intentionally let there be places of emptiness in my life. The innkeeper in me says, “why would I ever want to leave a room empty?” Actually trying to leave room so that you feel some emptiness might be the craziest challenge you’ve ever heard. The sensible thing to do is to fill everything up so as to not feel empty.

The Advent season is not about our sensibilities. It’s about allowing space for peace to enter. For peace to reside, take shelter, and begin to grow. This is the language of hope, and hope is not sensible. Hope is a bit crazy, kind of like giving birth to a child in a barn.

Here is the great thing about Advent. Even if we’re too full and don’t have room, Advent will still happen. The invitation will still be there when we are ready. So, keep heart, make room, and let Peace fill your emptiness. May the Peace of the Lord be with you.

(postscript: This piece was written for my graduate school, The Seattle School, for an Advent series they have created. To subscribe to the entire series of articles, poems, and other Advent reflections, click here: https://theseattleschool.edu/forms/advent2014/)

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Thriving the Holidays

Raise your hand if you don’t feel some twinge of anxiety about the family dynamics during the holidays.

If you’re honest, you feel pretty conflicted about having your parents or siblings over for Thanksgiving dinner, much less visiting your childhood home. And you likely feel somewhat reluctant about going to your in-laws or some other place than what is normal.

Surviving the holiday season is all about eating more food, drinking more wine, and watching more football. Basically, if you want to just make it through the holidays without rocking the boat, spend as little time sober around your family as possible. And by sober, I don’t mean alcohol and food inebriation, rather I mean that you not engage with what you really think and feel. Alcohol and Food provide great buffers to numb out the pain that so many of our family situations trigger. Surviving is about just getting by, Thriving is about being present and not letting the old patterns and behaviors become the go-to actions.

Here’s some ideas on thriving this holiday season:

1. Don’t expect changes to have occurred in any of your family of origin relationships. This isn’t to say that you need to expect them to have not changed, but be available for surprise if that has happened. You’ll build resentments if you have unrealistic expectations.

2. Practice not saying all that you have to say. It’s easy to get triggered and have a flood of old emotions come sweeping in during time with family. Use caution about what you say, and who you say it to.

3. Plan your exit strategy ahead of time. Set boundaries for how much time you will spend, and where. Don’t let big decisions be made on the spot, make those proactively.

4. Be mindful of eating and drinking indulgently. There is always copious amounts of food and drink during holiday celebrations, and it’s easy to numb out to excessive caloric intake or alcohol.

5. Don’t completely deviate from your normal routine. Take some of your normal non-vacation habits with you. Bedtime, morning, mealtime, etc. The more familiar you are with what the day holds the healthier you will be able to respond to challenging situations.

Above all, be honest with yourself and those that are committed to truth and vulnerability. The holidays can provide some great contexts for healing, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be involved in that process.

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Making Room in Your Family

Earlier this fall I was asked to share some practices and habits our family does that help to make room for relationships. So much of family life is dictated by events and schedules that we often miss out on relationship building with our spouse or kids. Here are a few of the ideas I shared. Disclaimer: by no means does my family have it figured out, rather we are figuring it out as we go. Our kids are all under 12, so I expect these ideas to expand/evolve as our kids grow up.

We think of making room in our family in two sections: Work/school week, and weekend.

During the school week we attempt to eat together as a family as often as possible. We don’t allow technology or other distractions (books, TV, toys, iPods, phones, etc) to be at the table and we try to have conversations about our day. It usually begins with discussing our high and lows. It almost always includes at least one of our four kids trying to sabotage our efforts. I did the same thing as a kid, so I can’t blame them. Conversations are “boring,” as my kids put it.

We, my wife and I, limit our personal technology use. We try not to use technology (tv, phones, etc) while the kids are awake during the “school nights.” It’s really easy to want to come home, turn on the TV and check-out. The “screen” has become the biggest influencers of relationships.

For the kids, there is no tv, no video games, or other technology use on school nights. This helps the kids to focus on the homework but also allows for us as parents to play or relate to them in whatever it is they have going on.

On the weekend:

We don’t police tech use on Saturday. It’s the day to play video games, watch a cartoon in the morning, and let the kids be kids in this modern day and age. Surprisingly, whenever we ask the kids to turn their iPods off on the weekend, they rarely complain. They intuitively know that too much technology is not a good thing.

We have made Sunday until Noon our time of rest. We generally stay in bed and have all the kids with us after they wake up until breakfast. We lounge around together in our pj’s, reading, playing board games, legos, or something else that is open for everyone (Our kids range from 3-11 with one girl and 3 boys).

Sunday mornings are the few hours of the week that Stephanie and I feel the most present and available with our kids. It’s my favorite time of our week because there are no agendas, the kids know we’re not doing anything outside of being together as a family.

Lastly, one of our favorite practices together is sitting by a fire. We have the benefit of a big backyard that allows us to build a great campfire. Usually 2-3 times a month during the spring and fall we are outside sitting around the fire together. It is probably the single most influential relational time that we have together as a family. The fire sparks so many conversations and openness between all of us. The fire is one of those things that unites people. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but it slows us all down.

The main idea we have come up with for our family is the limiting of technology. There are very few places we humans can go where technology is not surrounding us. If you as a parent don’t do anything else with you kids but eat dinner together, and limit their technology use, you’ll be in rare company.

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Secret Decoder Rings

e7b3_secret_decoder_ringMy siblings and I would always fight over who got the toy out of the cereal box. It even became a sly game of determining where the toy was inside the bag without pulling the bag out of the box or in digging around inside. There were rules our parents setup to keep things fair (which in a family with 6 kids is next to impossible). There was sheer joy when you’d be the one to pour the toy into your bowl, which was supposed to be the only legit way of gaining possession (It will come as no surprise to hear that we found ways around that idea).

Most of the time, marriages start out like the pursuit of that toy. We find ways to be together. We spend time crafting ideas and ways to be creative in our pursuit of the prize. We get euphoric and that incredible rush when we finally get what we’ve been pursuing. Once we’ve gotten what we want, we often don’t really know what to do with it. So much of life is about anticipation, the pursuit, and the chase; and marriage is no different.

A couple I was recently counseling highlighted this dynamic. They explained how much coasting they had done in their relationship, that 18 years later they woke up to realize how much distance there was. The husband explained that his wife needed a secret decoder ring to interpret all of his jumbled communication. She, of course, did not have that ring and thus their communication was stagnant.

It was true for them, and will be for many other marriages: Without persistent work, couples will eventually lead separate lives losing valuable insights and connection with their spouse. In the 10+ years I’ve been working with couples, I’ve seen that it doesn’t take much to throw off the equilibrium of a relationship.

It’s easy to see that a disabled family member, death of a child, or the loss of work could be highly disruptive to a relationship, but those are not the real cancers of relationships. The real cancers are the unspoken everyday fouls made with one another that do not get the attention they need.

Effort is something we reserve for what is most valuable and precious in our lives. My guess is that if someone were to visit the homes of a stale or cancerous relationship, they would see television, social media, work, and kids as the main areas that the majority of effort is spent.

Rarely do I interact with couples where I hear of regular consistent time spent together away from the easy distractions of life. This is true at my office, but also in my own social circles. The sad truth is that couples just don’t spend the time together needed to sustain their relationship.

Sure, it’d be lovely to have a secret decoder ring to find out what the other person is really saying. Unfortunately, this ring would make the relationship worse. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who’s always right, or who knows all the answers. This would feel more akin to a relationship between a child and parent than that of a marriage. The old adage is true: We get out of life what we put into it. If you put nothing into marriage, you’ll likely get nothing in return.

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The Way We Heal

The way we heal the wounds in our lives is to tell the story. Tell the story of your harm over and over again until you are no longer limited and harmed by what has happened. This is the essence of therapy … to become familiar with our own truths (and lies) and live honest and peaceable lives.

You cannot do this alone. We are not unbiased about our wounds, nor the words we use to describe our experiences. We need others to hear our stories, and to help us to see parts that we’d rather not see. Parts that we hate.

Untold stories (secrets) poison our hope, dreams, and relationships. Yes, there is much pain in these stories but pain is only there because there has been a fracture of relationship. Just like cold is not it’s own created thing, it is the absence of heat, so too is pain. Pain only exists because a relationship (love) has been broken.

If we cannot forgive those we hate the most (and this doesn’t mean that we have to like the person we’re forgiving), we will never be able to accept the forgiveness of others. Telling our secrets—our stories—is the process of grief, of forgiveness.

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Listen twice

There’s a invaluable rule in construction: Measure twice, cut once. If you’ve ever made the mistake of not following this advice, you understand how important it is. One mis cut piece of material can vastly alter the overall structure and finished product.

It takes a little extra time, focus, and energy to do the same thing repeatedly, but when dealing with a $300 piece of wood, it’s well worth the time.

This idea is true for relationships as well … with a little adaptation: Listen twice, respond once. Our response is like taking a saw out and making a cut. It’s putting action to what is being heard and communicated. Yes, it will take some extra time and energy to listen twice, but this will surely save you unnecessary heartache.

Most of us only listen once, biding our time until we can get a word in edgewise. Listening twice might include asking open-ended questions out of a genuine place of curiosity, not to lead the witness. If you don’t feel this genuineness, take a step back until you can be. The great thing is the universality of this concept. It works in all relationships. Try it at work, with friends, or your kids. You might hear someone’s truth instead of responding based on your assumptions.

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Withholding Judgment

Early on in my career as a couples therapist, I saw countless couples who would come into my office, sit on my couch, and launch in to attacks against one another. These early days highlighted that I did not know what to do with a couple who was instantly and constantly judging each other. I read some books and found some resources that were quite helpful. These efforts culminated when I found another professional offering a class on an approach to help couples to practice relating to each other based on a non-judgmental stance. It was helpful for me as a professional, but also in my own marriage.

There’s rarely a worse experience in a relationship than to feel judged by someone we deeply care about. Judgements are those beliefs about another person that suggest they are only out for themselves. Our judgements show up in our need to label things or people as good/bad, right/wrong, and worthless/worthwhile.

However, there are some benefits of judgements in life. They allow us to make quick decisions by creating manageable categories for people or objects. Our preferences can often be explained by our judgements. When dealing with inanimate objects, judgements are a well developed tool. The problem with judgements is when they are directed towards people, especially those closest to us.

Relationships cannot thrive when one or both parties are fluent in judging. When we judge, we are building our case against the other person and cease observing objectively. This posture often comes from our need to be safe. Because of this need, we will seek out threats and dangerous situations that are not safe. In close relationships, the other person can easily be seen as a threat because they are not as concerned with my safety as they are with their own.

Approaching someone with a posture of compassion takes practice, intentionality, and a great degree of selflessness. This approach will also provide the greatest hope of providing intimacy, connection, and relational safety. It is also the scariest. Compassion first requires that we are aware of our own judgements.

Once aware of a judgmental stance, ask yourself these questions:

  • “What is the desired outcome of this situation?”
  • “Is my judgmental posture helping or hurting me?”
  • “If I were in his/her shoes, how would I feel about these judgements?”

The reality is that none of us know exactly what is happening in the others head. We can assume what their implications, motivations, and insinuations are in the statements they make, but ultimately we have to trust that they will tell us the truth. If we don’t trust that the other person is being forthright, we are going to be prone to judge.

Here are some steps to practice approaching your partner with a nonjudgmental posture. Instead of saying aloud or internally, “you just want…,” or, “you’re really saying this…,” exchange these judgmental statements with statements of preference such as, “I like,” or, “I hope,” or, “I wish.” Speak about yourself, not the other person. Ask clarifying questions that help you to see reality from the others’ perspective.

Practice letting what is, be what it is. Let the facts be the facts, don’t add emotions on top of the facts to create something bigger. For example, if a husband hears his wife say “you’re a failure!” when she reminded him for the 3rd time to take out the trash, the husband needs to tend to the reality of the situation. Take the trash out and then ask questions about her statements towards him to confirm what he heard. It might sound something like this: “When you said, ‘John, for the last time, take out the trash!’ I heard you say that I am a failure of a husband. Is that what you meant?” The wife can then clarify. Assuming that he is a failure will not do either of them any good.

Approaching others with a spirit of openness is a risky, but rewarding stance. Conversely, if we approach others with a spirit of judgment, it’s likely that we will be creating plenty of reasons for why the relationship will ultimately fail. It’s impossible to build connections when there is a fear of unnecessary judgments.

(Article originally published at Start Marriage Right)

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Celebrating the Big Days

A few months ago I was with my family eating at Chick-Fil-A and I noticed an advertisement next to the counter. It said, “Make your reservations today to spend Valentines with your Love here at Chick-Fil-A. We will be serving a candlelit dinner for 2 from 5:00-9:00pm.”

As we were leaving, I showed Stephanie, my wife, the ad, and half-jokingly told her that I’d made reservations for the two of us. She shot me a look that very clearly said: “Don’t bring me here for Valentine’s Day.” Yes, I was half-kidding, but I was also half-serious. Thankfully, I listened and we celebrated elsewhere.

Birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day are all jam packed with hopes and expectations. It’s really no surprise that Stephanie and I have had our most difficult fights surrounding these big days.

The distance between expectation and reality is the feeling of disappointment, hurt, and anger (unless, of course, the expectations are exceeded). As one who has failed mightily, the overarching advice for these days: Do not just go through the motions. These special days are far too valuable to be wasted by a half-hearted approach at celebration.

Birthdays
This day might be complicated for you or your spouse. Because birthdays are celebrated, or not, uniquely in different cultures, you or your spouse might have to have some big changes to the way you celebrate each other. In advance of a birthday, spend some time together talking about past birthdays. Ask questions like:

  • What was your favorite, and/or the most forgettable birthday in your life?
  • What was the most cherished gift you received?
  • Do you like surprises (parties, gifts, trips, etc)?
  • How best can I celebrate you on this one day of the year?

A friend of mine was thrown a surprise birthday by his wife over 15 years ago. He does not (and did not) like surprises. Today, they both still talk about this birthday as one of the low points in their relationship. Unfortunately as is the case with most of life, you will learn about how to celebrate your spouse by failing more so than you will by doing it right.

Valentine’s Day
Let me speak from a males perspective for a moment. Most men that I know do not particularly care for this day. This isn’t to say that all men don’t like it, but most do not. I think the reason is that there is a huge cultural expectation for this day to be the affirmation of a couple’s love for one another. It’s been marketed as a holiday that is focused on getting a gift for the woman in your life.

I have often heard from men that they don’t want a holiday to be what defines their love for their spouse. Some of this is because we men are arrogant and selfish. My advice to men is to think outside of the box on Valentine’s Day. Don’t just get her chocolates, cut flowers, or a balloon. Find a way to make this day special and uniquely centered around the love in your relationship. One of our favorite Valentine’s Days was when we went to a park, cooked our dinner together, and then had a “drive-in” movie in the back of our SUV (we watched a movie on a laptop).

Neither one of us remember the Valentine’s Dates when it was just about a gift, dinner, or just going through the motions.

Anniversaries
The great thing about Anniversaries is the two of you will create this day together. There is usually little personal history around this day for husband and wife, which makes creating a celebration a little less complicated than other special days. Similar to the questions in the birthday section, consider engaging ahead of time about what you want this day to look like together.

Thankfully, as I see it, redemption is only one year away. These special days come around every year, which means that if something goes awry this year, you get a chance at redemption the next year. The key to making these days special is to be intentional, plan ahead, and be creative. Do those three things and your spouse will feel loved and celebrated.

(article originally published at Start Marriage Right)