Every year at this time, I think about when my husband and I started dating, fell in love, got married. I’m reminded of it, of course, because that heart-filled holiday this month is the one day (other than our wedding anniversary) to celebrate the relationship we have with our life partner. I ran across a couple of old columns I wrote on the subject to highlight how easy it is for couples to “forget” about each other, forget to nurture each other. Sometimes it’s because children are born, sometimes it’s just because. Maybe you can relate …
Every once in awhile I look at my husband and think about how we live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, sit beside each other to watch “West Wing” and marvel at the distance between us.
That’s a scary moment in a marriage. Realizing that days have passed where we are together but not really “with” each other.
That was 2003. Randy and I had been married 22 years.
I know why it happens. Jobs, caring for a home, groceries, yard work, pets. And for us, kids. I have friends, with and without kids, who complain of the same lack of couple time. And we all can recite the experts’ advice: Carve out that time to be together. Your relationship depends on it.
“The process begins when you have a couple spending time with one another,” Solana Beach marriage and family therapist Steven Meineke told me back in 1999.
“Maybe they spend some time, too, on their own individual interests. Then a child comes along and they cut back on their individual activities, and couple time becomes family time. One person cares for the baby while the other does errands or plays golf or goes shopping with friends. Then they trade off.
“And then the second child comes along and the trade-off stuff doesn’t work,” Meineke said. “Everything gets collapsed into family and the couple stuff doesn’t exist.
“Of all the couples I see for marriage therapy, what would describe the largest group of people who come to me is the couple who have a 3- or 4-year-old and a baby. That’s the stage when couples feel more stress in their relationship than at any other time.”
I can’t remember, in those early years of raising four children, how often we did “date night.” But in 2003, Randy took me away on Valentine’s weekend. We didn’t go far. We stayed in a local hotel, had a quiet dinner, went to Mass and brunch and a movie the next day and spent 90 glorious minutes in a bookstore. It was 31 hours and felt like a week.
“Why don’t we do this more often?” I asked him sometime on Sunday.
He just looked at me, a wordless reminder of all the times he’s suggested we do this more often.
It was worse when the kids were little, finding a baby sitter, pushing down the guilt of leaving the kids in the first place, justifying spending the money. Yet, when we finally drove or flew away, alone, it felt right.
It’s so hard, sometimes, to remember that we were a couple before we were parents. But if we are to remain a couple after the last kid is grown and gone, we have to get back in touch with those two people who fell in love all those years ago.
Drifting apart after the birth of children is natural, Meineke says. But you can do something about it.
“The main antidote,” Meineke told me all those years ago, “is intentional time spent as a couple. Even if it’s only 10 minutes talking about how you’re doing as a couple.”
“It’s not that the intimacy isn’t there,” he adds, “it’s just underground … until you get back to being a couple.”
Then he told me about a mini-test to know where your couple relationship stands. It’s a question he asks couples who come to him:
Imagine for a moment that there’s someone available to watch your children for a set amount of time, someone you absolutely trust. You have the opportunity, and are fully funded, to go someplace you think is special and spend a weekend together. It will be just the two of you, doing whatever activities you want to do. Does that sound fun and exciting?
“Couples who break out in big smiles and start looking at each other like goofy teen-agers,” Meineke said, are couples who just need some time together. “You probably remember a time in your relationship when the energy to deal with life came from your partner, who then was your boyfriend or girlfriend,” Meineke says. “That person energized you, made you feel you could take on the world. You were getting your batteries recharged.”
Of course, now, with the kids, the jobs, the volunteer work, the bills, the chores … there’s a huge drain on the batteries. If you haven’t nurtured your relationship, Meineke says, there’s not much there to help you recharge.
“What I tell people is: You may think it’s one more thing you have to do – ‘Now I have to add to the demands by going out on date night’ — but the exact opposite happens. Going out, enjoying the pleasure of your partner’s company – gives you the energy to do all those other things.”
And as for the guilt that many parents feel for taking precious time away from the kids, Meineke repeats what they, deep inside, may already know but need to hear again.
“I tell couples: The best thing in the world you can do for your children is to be happy in your marriage.”
And it can’t be done just once a year, said Meineke: “Some couples have date night, and they do it come hell or high water.”
Family therapist Gayle Peterson offers these tips, among others, on ivillage.com for “Carving out couple time:”
“It is in the best interests of your children that Mom and Dad take some quality time for their relationship,” says Peterson. “Securing time together on a daily basis now may save you the expense of later marital counseling or an unrealistic, last-ditch push for a weekend away to save your marriage.”
Connect. Talk with your partner about realigning your relationship. Carve out time for your couple relationship on a daily and weekly basis. You are each other’s nourishment. Your energy is derived in part from the heart and soul of your marriage. The love, attention and appreciation you give one another is what helps you through the day.
Organize. The larger the family, the more important it is to develop productive routines so you do not waste energy. Divide duties between yourself and your husband so lunches get made, teeth get brushed and homework is supervised. Initially, effective scheduling takes effort, but planning will pay off in time saved and lower frustration levels.
Seek balance. Schedule so you can enjoy being a family and a couple. For example, you could create a weekly schedule that alternates couple time one week with a family outing the next week. Once predictable times for enjoying family relationships are established in this manner, you can always look forward to the next time you have carved out together. In this way, the relationship serves as a buffer to the many stresses of daily living.
Peterson says maintaining a boundary around couple time models intimacy for children: “Your marriage is the foundation on which their lives are built,” she says. “Like watering a garden, spending quality time together assures our children’s sense of security and continued growth.”
And mine and Randy’s, too.