Relationship role models share tools for fostering a healthy, vibrant relationship
Like many, my parents met at a young age, possibly fell in love, and made us kids. They are two of my favorite people on this planet, and I am grateful for everything they taught me, but how to stay married wasn’t one of those things. They fought more than they kissed, and the resentments built up over the years, as resentments do, until eventually the foundation split apart. I don’t want to ruin Valentine’s day, but, statistically, that’s how it goes for some 50 percent of marriages in America.
“That’s actually the point that a lot of couples come to me,” says Tracy Wikander, a marriage and family therapist, and half of Couples Vitality, the company she launched last year in Barcelona with her husband David Wikander, a relationship coach. “And that’s a common mistake, that they wait too long to get help.”
So what does a healthy, functional relationship even look like?, I ask Tracy and David, only realizing after they left that the answer was sitting right in front of me the whole time. Drawing on their experience coaching and counseling troubled couples in their own separate practices, Couples Vitality trains couples how to foster healthy, vibrant relationships. But it’s less about salvaging marriages (although they’ve done that too) than it is about maintenance and damage control.
In their 23 years of marriage, Tracy and David have accomplished amazing things together, like raise two children and run nutrition and white-water rafting companies. They take turns speaking, building off each other’s ideas. They listen, laugh and touch often. And after two decades spent sleeping in the same bed, they still flirt.
“David and I have a sex date,” says Tracy. “Every Wednesday night, come hell or high water, we’re havin’ sex!”
OK, a sex date is not the Holy Grail of relationship satisfaction, per se. But it’s one viable tool they recommend to couples to ensure the flame never goes out in the bedroom. Or other areas of the house, for that matter.
That’s not the only time, adds David, about Wednesdays. “It’s kind of like, with sexuality, having sex begets having sex. Not having sex begets not having sex,” says Tracy, whose easy laugh and enthusiasm complements David’s soft-spoken interjections, which lean into philosophy—what love is, the mystery of what draws two people together.
Role playing often, they demonstrate constructive approaches to communication, clearing the cobwebs of resentment, and talking about sensitive things—all with the consequence of keeping an intimate, supportive connection alive. I learned more about love in an hour than I’ve learned in three decades of life. Here were a few of the most eye- (or heart-) opening lessons I took away from our talk:
1. Stay Calm, It’s Only Love
Even from the first intoxicating stab of cupid’s arrow, it is possible (and probably in your best interest) to approach a new love from a rational and functional standpoint. At love’s first bite, the question becomes, “What is the form of the relationship that is right for us, what makes sense for us?” says David.
Realistically, the love you’ve stumbled upon may work only as a meaningful but short-term fling, or an incredible, non-sexual connection. Or maybe you really have found yourself the soulmate you want to spend the rest of your life with. But how will you know? I press. “You just, kind of, know,” says David. That’s it. You just kind of know.
“Here’s something about falling in love,” says David. “If two people are really open, if they have really open hearts, they can fall in love. Now what does that mean? To me that means, that’s really cool, you’re both open to the space of love.” But falling in love doesn’t necessarily mean you should get married, buy a house, and make kids. “That’s the fairy tale,” says Tracy.
2. Ideals, Shmideals
Well, obviously it’s important to acknowledge the ideal qualities we look for in a partner—a mentally sane nonsmoker, for instance, is a legitimate place to start—but once you’ve found a partner that fits your lifestyle, get rid of your check list.
“Where we get in trouble is when we start to compare our ideal to the actual relationship we’re in,” says David. “So if this is my ideal, and my partner doesn’t match this, and then I try to change my partner, or get mad at them, that doesn’t work.” The person you’re with may not be perfect, but they may very well be perfect for you.
And, anyone who carries around an ideal partner checklist should probably hear this, too: “It’s really important that we don’t look to our partner to create our happiness, or be our inspiration, we have to definitely find that within ourselves,” says Tracy. “We have to bring our whole being to the relationship.”
3. Respect and Honor Differences
It would appear that, sometimes, the feeling of being in love may cloud out certain critical details—like, for example, if the man you love lives in another country/is married/is addicted to gambling. The Wikanders recommend a thorough assessment of both your own and your partner’s values and beliefs—especially before doing something like tying the knot.
“And if you’re not aligned, in any of the differences that you may have, how are you holding and how are you working with it?” says Tracy. “Because if you try to go in and change each other, then you’re just going into a fight. Like if someone is Catholic, and the other person is agnostic or atheist, there has to be a deep respect for each other’s paths, and acceptance.”
4. Talk is Cheap
If Tracy and David had it their way, children would learn communication and relationship skills in elementary school. Communication is the iron core of any healthy relationship. But most couples they see are either avoiding one or more topics of conversation altogether, or having the conversations in a counterproductive way.
“So many couples, not all of them, but a lot, are actually afraid to speak about sexuality, because they don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings, they’re even afraid to ask for what works for them sexually,” says Tracy, who notes that in many partnerships, there is one partner who wants sex more than the other—an issue that is not at all as impossible to solve as it seems. “That’s one of the things we actually do in the training, is give the couples time to actually work with the sensitive subject.”
“If they’re not having conversations skillfully, then there’s no resolve, and they just kind of keep going around in circles,” says David. Parenting is a very common topic of conversation that can become contentious and lead to fights—often causing couples to avoid them altogether. Finances and sex are common areas of avoidance. “But couples will avoid anything,” says Tracy.
The trouble with avoiding certain topics is that it creates resentment, which in turn creates distance. And before you know it you’re sleeping in separate beds and sharing awkward dinner silences broken only by the occasional knife scraping plate or “pass the salt.”
“We go through the aspects of relationship, whether it’s social life, career life, family, health, there’s this whole tree of different aspects of relationship, and we have couples look at that and assess how are we doing in these areas,” says Tracy. “And they get to work on them, so it’s really practical, and oftentimes couples will come out of it feeling like they’ve accomplished something.”
5. Plug In To Each Other
More than anything, keeping a relationship vibrant is about keeping the connection alive and well, or electric, if you will. “That’s probably the number one thing where we see couples fall down,” says Tracy. “In the beginning, in the honeymoon phase and in the shiny-sweet phase, our relationship is a priority, and we don’t have to work at that. And then life happens. We’re in our careers, or we have our children, and we tend to become, in a way, unaware or unconscious around nurturing or keeping the connection.”
What most people don’t realize is that it’s possible to keep your relationship a priority and keep your kids and career as a priority, too, adds David. “Probably the best thing that we can do for our children is to model a healthy working relationship,” says Tracy. “I mean, could you imagine what a different world we would have?”
If you have kids, make special time for just mom and dad to connect—a date night, a hike, it doesn’t really matter what it is. “Kids, they get that, they understand that, and, actually, they think it’s kind of cool,” says David. Because ultimately, mom and dad usually come back happier.
Almost more important, though, is cultivating a daily connection. One thing this does not look like is a hurried kiss on the cheek. “It can be a minute, it can be five minutes, but there’s a quality to it, if you go for really connecting, that can really nurture the relationship,” says David. “And you connect back into the essence of the relationship. Sometimes it’s just looking in each others eyes, sometimes it’s just a hug, but a hug that’s really felt.”
That’s right. Even if you’ve been together forever. Flirting should never get old. “That’s what keeps sexuality alive, and I think that’s what keeps relationships vibrant too,” says David. “Even if it’s just something like this [touching Tracy’s shoulder], it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as we’re putting energy toward our partner.
“Flirting can be subtle, too,” he adds. “Like a little text, just one word, like ‘Tonight.’” Is it Wednesday already?
PHOTO: David and Tracy Wikander will teach a Couples Vitality training on Valentine’s weekend, Feb. 14-15, in Santa Cruz. CHIP SCHEUER