For many couples, their wedding day is expected to be one of the happiest days of their lives. But that conventional wisdom does mask one important truth: when the “I dos” are exchanged, the wedding cake has been devoured and the guests drive home, you and your partner still have decades of days ahead of you that you want to be just as joyful.
So how do you keep that high going long after you've downed that last glass of bubbly? Dr. Sherry Blake, a licensed clinical psychologist who has guided the relationships of some of Atlanta’s most high profile celebrities, has some ideas. (You’ve seen her comfort the Braxton family during an epic crisis, and assist as Real Housewives Of Atlanta star Porsha Williams picked up the shattered pieces of her relationship with Dennis McKinley.)
Not only does Dr, Sherry boast a decades-long career as a therapist and relationship strategist, she’s also celebrating her 20 year wedding anniversary. It's safe to say this veteran knows a thing or two about making love last forever.
PEOPLE spoke exclusively with Dr. Sherry about the strategies she recommends for getting through the rough patches in a marriage. And the advice for everyday people is the same as for those she’s helped on TV: communication is key.
As she tells it, communication the oxygen needed to sustain a healthy relationship, and sometimes therapy can breathe new life into a bond that seems stale. “You have to be able to communicate openly and honestly. That is a must,” says Dr. Sherry. “You also have to trust the person has your best interest at heart. A lot of times, love is rated the number one [factor] in a relationship. But love without communication and trust, you don’t have a true relationship.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact on Dr. Sherry’s clients, but she says quarantine has generally been great for many of them because it's made them face the truths about their relationships that they may have been been avoiding.
“Before the quarantine, if you were in a relationship that wasn’t quite what you wanted it to be, at least you had eight hours at work, you had time to be distracted by shopping, or doing other things," she says, but "in quarantine, there’s only so many square feet you can run to.” Dr. Sherry also says the couples who are having the most success in quarantine are the ones who are using this time of isolation to “put in the work” to communicate.
Dr. Sherry suggests that couples find projects around the house that they can tackle together as an exercise on working towards a common goal. “It’s really interesting that when couples work together, they tend to enjoy it – especially when they can see a positive outcome," she says. "I don’t care if it’s cleaning out a closet or cooking a meal together. It can be simple, but it’s about learning to work together and talking about their different approaches.”
She also stresses that boundaries are just as important as collaboration to keep a marriage healthy. Having designated areas in the home that allow each person in the relationship the space to breathe and decompress is another strategy that ultimately creates closeness but prevents smothering.
“It’s ok to watch a movie by yourself or go for a walk on your own,” she says. “It shouldn’t be taken personally if you need a little ‘me” time, and once your [communication becomes strong] your partner will sense that. You will have to ask for the alone time less and less.”
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Disagreements in relationships are bound to arise, but they don’t have to be deal-breakers as long as couples engage in what Dr. Sherry calls “fair fighting.” That means eliminating the finger-pointing and taking responsibility for the role you personally play in the conflict.
“Couples tend to bring up everything from yesterday to 10 years ago. And they use too many absolutes like ‘never’ and ‘always,’ " she says. "Does your husband ‘always’ forget to take out the trash? Is that really true? We have to be mindful of the words we use to fight, because they’re very powerful.”
She also warns against bringing other people into a fight you’re having with your partner, by mentioning how someone outside the relationship feels about their behavior. This can make your spouse feel attacked, and “you want to attack the problem, not the person.”
Above all, Dr. Sherry says safeguarding your relationship means keeping friends and family out of your business.
“If you put [your relationship problems] out there, and then you’re able to work things out, those other people will have an opinion about your marriage. It might upset you, but you’re the one that gave them the information,” says Dr. Sherry. “You can share frustrations you’re feeling, but don’t slander your mate and then expect others to respect them once you’re in a better space.”
That's not to say you can't vent to a third party – just that the third party should be a neutral counselor who can help identify patterns and encourage better communication.
And the one thing anyone can do to keep the spark alive? "Keep dating" throughout the marriage by continuing to do the things that made them fall in love with each other, Dr. Sherry says. “If you were doing exciting things – going out to the movies, vacations and dinner dates – and those things stop after saying 'I do,' it makes the marriage get stale quickly,” she says. “Surprise your mate. Make sure life isn’t always the same old same. Do something different to spice things up and create moments to look forward to.”
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