02/02/2016 04:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2017

3 Ways to Refocus Your Marriage in 2016

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Even though you might be told this before you get married, you don't really understand its truth until after you're married: marriage is hard work.

Marriage can be sublime, but it can also be one of the toughest relationships in your life, especially if you and your spouse aren't on the same page -- or haven't even been in the same book for years on end.

The early part of every new year affords us the opportunity to take stock of how our relationships are faring. Maybe your marriage right now is more of a burden and less of a joy.

Maybe you or your spouse have lost focus. Maybe you both have had a communication break down and it's created a wedge in your relationship. Maybe there's been hurt and the walls are up for both of you.

Whatever the cause, here are my simple challenges to you to refocus your marriage in 2016:

1. Be together for at least twenty minutes every day.

Talk and listen to each other with undivided attention. No mobile devices. No kids. No others. Just you two.

As I wrote in The Stories We Tell Ourselves, "An intentional listener refrains from thinking about their own response while the other person is still speaking." When you're not thinking about yourself while your spouse is still speaking, that's true undivided attention. Such focused attention ensures that you're being emotionally present with your spouse instead of just being there in body.

Research indicates that at least twenty minutes per day of focused communication is essential to building and maintaining a great relationship. So how can you do that, practically speaking (especially if it's been awhile)?

First, mutually decide what time of day works best for such focused conversation.

Next, each spouse gets to talk for ten minutes. The other spouse needs to attempt to provide their undivided attention. While the talker talks, the listener needs to ask themselves, "What must this be like for them?" This simple exercise in empathy and understanding can do wonders for a marriage -- even in just twenty minutes a day.

2. Learn how to be non-reactive.

A few years back I worked with a couple where the husband was highly emotional and reactive in session. He'd yell, cry, point fingers, and make inflammatory statements during most session.

The wife had diligently worked on how to be non-reactive. Her reaction to his outbursts were purposeful and deliberate. She would focus on her breathing and slow her pace of speech. In other words, she chose not to fight fire with fire. He would then respond less aggressively and emotionally. Her non-reaction helped ease their problems.

Couples like who these two once were come into my office all the time. They're stuck in unhealthy, reactive cycles that focus on each other as the problem rather than pointing fingers at the problem as the problem. My wife and I fall into this same trap as well. It's hard work, but I find that the better we get at being non-reactive to each other, the better our relationship becomes.

When conflict arises, choose to be calm and thoughtful in response to your spouse. Don't let your emotions always make a quick, unfiltered reply. Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Consider what you want to say and how you want to say it. And remember that you're not adversaries; you're a team.

3. Don't point fingers. Learn to work together against the problem.

How many times has your spouse pointed out a perceived flaw in you and you've replied with, "Oh, you're right. I'll change that right now."

Some relationships can do this, but only if the marriage is in a great place and only if the person receiving the criticism is open to hearing it. But when finger-pointing happens in a stalled or bad relationship, the blame game begins.

When couples focus on blaming one another for the problems within their marriage, their goal isn't necessarily to bring down the other person. Their real goal is to try to change the other person's behavior to their own liking. But this seldom works, no matter how often and how vainly we try to make our spouses do what we want. In trying to solve the "problem" of your spouse, you wind up creating more problems in the relationship.

Here's the alternative solution: learn how to work together against any problems rather than making the other person the problem. By focusing on an issue together, you're bound to discover a better solution while also fortifying your marriage. Focusing on the problem also requires being able to look at your own behavior and being willing to change for the health of the relationship.

Plan to Refocus Your Marriage Today

1. Schedule twenty minutes of uninterrupted talk with your spouse.

2. Learn what it means for you to be non-reactive.

3. Don't point fingers. Learn to work together against the problem.

Start these practices today and watch your relationship start to thrive.

For more info on healthy marriages, pick up a copy my book The Stories We Tell Ourselves. Click here to ask questions or make comments. Feel free to email Scott.

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