Happy couple reuniting

The story that turned our marriage around

Over time, how you greet each other sets the tone for your marriage and family life.

Early in our marriage, my wife & I began to take each other for granted. As the romance in our relationship slowly fizzled, we began bickering about all the things couples bicker about.

I remember feeling like we were on an airplane slowly losing altitude. I was certain our marriage was headed for a crash — I just didn’t know when.

What’s worse, I couldn’t pinpoint what we were doing wrong. We didn’t have a single major argument — just lots of small ones. I remember thinking, “If you don’t know what’s wrong with your marriage, you can’t fix it.”

Desperate for answers, I began obsessively reading books about marriage. I downloaded over a hundred talks by leading experts in the field and listened to them as I worked.

I was learning a lot, but the light bulb finally went off as I was listening to a talk by Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

A couple looking for help

In his talk, Doherty spoke about a couple who came to him for counseling. When he asked what was wrong, the wife said she was the one who was unhappy.

Her complaint?

When her husband came home from work, the dog would excitedly greet him, and he would greet the dog with great affection. Then the children would greet him — not as excited as the dog — but they were still happy to see their father. He would greet the kids with warmth and tenderness.

In the wife’s words, her husband was good with the kids, but better with their dog.

Then the husband would make his way to their bedroom and change. Twenty minutes later he would track her down and ask when dinner would be ready.

The wife felt the dog held first place in his heart. The children were in second place. She wasn’t even in third place. She was tied with the furniture.

Her husband’s warmth toward their dog and children made it all worse. She could see he was capable of the affection and tenderness she craved.

The husband felt everything was fine. He was doing his job as he knew it. He was working hard as a provider, he was a warm and responsive father, he was not a critical husband.

Of course he loved his wife. He felt she should know that.

The couple made just one mistake

Bill Doherty told the couple there was nothing wrong with their relationship — except one thing.

Bill Doherty’s important insight is that the natural trend of marriage is for romance, affection, appreciation, and communication to decline over time — not because couples begin to dislike each other — but because they get too comfortable.

I had thought the key to a happy marriage was to marry the right person. If you marry the right person, a happy marriage naturally results. It’s automatic. But Bill Doherty argues even the best couples — if they fail to nurture their relationship — will see their marriages lose flavor over time.

Doherty’s big phrase is “the intentional couple.” Couples need to be aware of what they are doing and have a plan to renew romance in their marriages.

Doherty told the couple who came to see him they were the same good couple they were when they first met.

The key to staying happy in marriage is: what comes naturally when you first fall in love, at some point you need to make it a habit.

Good marriage habits are the key to a long-lasting happy marriage.

A homework assignment

Doherty gave the couple a homework assignment. Before their next appointment with him, they were to develop a daily ritual — something they would do every day for the rest of their life together — to show each other they still loved each other.

The best time for this daily ritual is the most important moment in your marriage: the moment of reunion — it’s how you greet each other.

The couple went home, spoke to each other, and agreed it was to their great shame the dog was the most affectionate member of their family. They decided to adopt the daily ritual, “Top the Dog.”

The next day, when the husband came home, the wife ran out the door barking at him, even more excited than the dog to see him. The husband, in turn, barked back at his wife — affectionately — “topping the dog” himself.

Just like that, the romance was back in their marriage.

When I heard this story, I nearly fell out of my chair. “That’s us,” I thought. At the time, we didn’t have a child — nor did we have a dog — but already in the first year of our marriage we had gotten too comfortable with each other.

I resolved to start barking at my wife. I figured if it could work for this couple, it could work for us. The only problem? I never had a dog.

I decided to practice barking before my wife came home. After fifteen minutes, I deemed my barking too hostile — my wife will run away if I bark at her like this, I thought.

I needed to come up with our own daily ritual.

I immediately remembered something my parents did. Occasionally after dinner my father would ask my mother to dance, and they would dance in the living room of our home.

Seeing my parents dance in our home was a beautiful memory for me. Realizing I couldn’t affectionately bark at my wife, I decided to make a daily ritual of dancing with my wife instead.

That day, when my wife came home, I surprised her by jumping up from my chair, running to her, and exclaiming “I have to dance with you.”

Just like that, the romance was back in our marriage.

I was shocked to realize in that first dance, “this is not my roommate, this is the love of my life!”

“We forgot we loved each other”

I have had so many couples tell me over the years “we forgot we loved each other.” It is so easy to get caught up in the grind of daily life and irritated at all the small frustrations.

How you greet each other is the single best daily opportunity to remind yourselves of the big picture: you are living with the love of your life!

If you can remember you are living with the love of your life, every day has glory in it. You are quick to forgive each other — and you will find joy in the doing the small things for each other.

The moment of reunion is not only your single best chance to renew romance in your marriage, it provides an irreplaceable opportunity to connect.

One of the saddest things I’ve heard in all the years I’ve worked with couples was shared by a husband who had gotten a big job promotion — a promotion it had taken him years to earn.

He rushed home that night to share the great news with his wife only to find her talking with a friend on her phone — for forty-five minutes. When she finally got off the call, she got on her computer.

He was so crushed he didn’t share the news of his promotion with her — until I met with them several months later.

In front of me, he told her, “I think a ritual for the moment of reunion would help us, because three months ago I got a job promotion and I was so excited to share the news with you, but you never even noticed I walked in the door.”

A time to connect

Rituals of reunion are not just about showing you’re happy to see each other — they are about taking a moment to take notice of each other.

As I tell couples all the time, a welcome home kiss is good, it’s not good enough — it’s too quick.

More than 90% of communication is non-verbal. If you don’t take the time to stop and look at each other — without distraction — you will not be a connected couple.

Our reunion dance — we’re terrible dancers, it’s more like a glorified hug — is about two minutes long. This slows us down just enough so we can pick up on each other’s mood — you look happy… you got a job promotion?… let’s celebrate!

Romance and connection are the missing ingredients in too many marriages. A two-minute ritual at the moment of reunion would give new life to your love every day — and would help you be there for each other through all the sorrows and joys of your life together.

Action item

Agree on a simple, two-minute ritual to greet each other — with a positive spirit — each and every day.

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