INTRO: Do you long for the early times of your romantic relationship, when support and affection flowed freely? A couple’s therapist promises you can recreate this mood by asking one simple question.

In the early days of a new romance, couples delight in pleasing one another. Each is eager to learn what the other needs to feel safe and loved. This sweet openness invites tenderness and understanding. Even mundane discussions about habits in driving, food likes and dislikes, and the predictable conflict over the position of the toilet seat, become conversations of discovery. After too short a time, the unspoken permission to ask about or volunteer preferences starts to wither. A request to change a small habit or to ask for a favor can be taken as criticism or imposition.

I’ve worked with couples in my psychotherapy practice for twenty years, guiding them to increase understanding, support, and affection between each other. Many people avoid serious talks about their individual needs and wants because they fear rejection or worry they might hurt their partners’ feelings. Others delay until they are too frustrated and angry to have a real conversation. Without taking the risk of initiating honest discussion, relationships fill with stale resentments and harmful assumptions. One couple, Liz and Jerry, brought this problem into my counseling office.

After thirty years of marriage, Liz insisted she and Jerry needed couple counseling. She erupted at the beginning of the first session. “Jerry won’t talk with me. I don’t know if I want a divorce, but we fight about stupid things like housework. I can’t stand the unhappiness in our house any more. We raised three great kids, built a beautiful home, and saved for our future. He watches sports on TV and plays golf on his days off and doesn’t want to do anything as a couple. We’ll be retired soon and I’m afraid we’ll end up hating each other.”

Jerry replied with matched irritation. “All you do is complain about housework. I do the yard and make and manage most of our money. While we’re being honest, you’ve lost interest in sex, which you told me I had to accept. Big deal, I play golf and watch TV. I’m not even sixty and you’re treating me like an old man who should care more about taking out the garbage than enjoying life. I miss having a good time, but you’re constantly busy with projects and friends. What do you want from me?”

They turned to me for an answer. “Jerry, your last question could be a good start for a conversation, but your tone doesn’t invite a real response. Try again and ask Liz this question: “What can I do to make today easier or more fun for you?’”

Flustered, he barely looked at Liz while repeating my question. She was embarrassed, and asked me, “Like what?”

I explained how long term relationships lose steam because couples stop believing that their partner really wants to please them. “Avoid mentioning chores, especially taking out the garbage. How about going for a walk or to a movie? Do you have a problem at work you’d like his help with? When’s the last time he gave you a neck massage?”

Liz and Jerry went home with this assignment: each of them would ask each other “What can I do to make today easier or more fun for you?” every day. They also needed to plan ahead to come up with real responses. They returned after two weeks, holding hands and eager to share the results.

Jerry reported that the hardest part for him was finding ideas for what he wanted Liz to do. “I asked for a neck rub, remembering your suggestion. One day I asked for help with a repair that was easier with an extra set of hands. Normally I’d have struggled with the job or avoided it. She was happy to work with me. This reminded me of how many big projects we had tackled together. Then I began to think about what we used to do for fun.”

Liz blushed a bit. “I was surprised when Jerry said he wanted to go dancing. We dressed up, and talked and laughed the whole evening. Maybe I’m not done with romance after all.

“At first, I could only think of the household projects he hadn’t finished. This exercise helped me see how I’d stopped asking Jerry for favors or suggesting fun things. I finally asked him to let me talk about a personnel problem at work without the TV on and no interrupting. He listened, then asked me if I wanted a suggestion. He had a great solution. I felt good knowing he really listened and wanted to help.”

Liz and Jerry felt awkward practicing this new habit for the first week, but by the second, they welcomed the invitation to share ideas and time together. They soon felt comfortable asking for assistance and suggesting fun activities spontaneously.

They found relationship magic in this one simple question: “What can I do to make today easier or more fun for you?” It focuses on what they want to give each other, rather than what they aren’t getting. By the end of two weeks, Liz asked Jerry about changing the color of their bedroom, and for his ideas on how to make it more romantic.

The pathway to a meaningful relationship is formed by such intimate moments, when couples feel encouraged to reveal who they are and want they want. Such efforts usually come when trying to heal after a bitter argument, or clearing a misunderstanding. Mutual support and understanding are more powerful when couples share their ideas and needs on a regular basis, before feelings are hurt.

Author's Bio: 

For thirty years Cynthia Wall has worked as a licensed social worker and therapist, volunteering in hospice, Red Cross, and with bereaved parents. Her background gives her absolute confidence that anyone can make big changes, overcome addiction and childhood abuses, and achieve desired goals.

Her 160 page book, "The Courage to Trust: a guide to deep and lasting relationships" (2005 New Harbinger Publications), is a course in how to trust wisely and speak with compassion and honesty. Her 90 minute audiotape, "Embracing True Prosperity", is based on her evidence that believing in a positive future will bring out the meaning and purpose of your life. She lives on the Mendocino Coast of northern California with her husband of 25 years.