It has become too common a refrain: There isn’t enough time. This is the excuse put forth by so many couples that I speak to in workshops and in my office.
Wives and husbands are pleading that they are so overwhelmed with the demands of work and children that they simply can’t create any space to share intimate moments with their partner. The result is often an increasing sense of disconnection that gets expressed as problems with communication, disagreements over finances, parenting conflicts, or insufficient sex.
But the latter are typically symptoms, not causes.
By improving the sense of connection, feelings of trust and mutual respect typically increase. Once those cornerstones are in place, it’s remarkable how much easier it becomes to resolve conflicts of any nature. In Wallerstein and Blakeslee’s wonderful book, “The Good Marriage” (1995), they note “For everyone [in their research group], happiness in a marriage meant feeling respected and cherished.” Gets right to the heart of the matter (pun intended)!
In trying to help couples reverse this downward spiral, I start by reminding them that if they constantly put their marriage at the end of their “To Do” lists, assuming that there will always be another day to attend to their spouses’ needs, one day they will be shocked to discover that there are no more days.
One of them will be saying “I don’t love you anymore and I want out.” This means that couples must truly make their marriage a priority, not simply in words or feelings, but in deeds. In today’s world of PDAs, Blackberrys, and other forms of keeping schedules, this means actually scheduling time for the marriage rather than expecting time shared will just happen.
My second key point, for couples who have children, is that the most important gift they can give their children is a healthy marriage. When marriages are working well, families function better. Children will not only find that their lives run more smoothly because their parents are in sync but research shows they will have fewer medical problems, presumably because there is less chronic stress in the home. An added benefit is that a good marriage models for children what they need to learn for the day when they are married.
Since a healthy marriage is such an important gift for your children, parents need to feel comfortable with the idea of taking some of the excess time currently devoted to parenting and investing it in the marriage. (“Excess time” is the fallout from parents trying too hard to create “perfect children” when children really need only “good enough” parenting, an issue covered in many of my previous articles.)
With these key points in mind, let us look at some strategies to create a more intimate and rewarding marriage:
Try to follow this prescription:
- Schedule 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted conversation each day
- Schedule at least one long conversation (1 to 1 1/2 hrs.) each week
- Schedule at least one overnight just for yourselves every 2 months
- Schedule at least two weekends just for yourselves each year
This may take some creativity. It also takes a mutual commitment. But the payoff is enormous.
To make the daily/weekly conversations happen requires some joint planning time. Get out your calendars, look at the week ahead and figure out when you can make time for each other. Don’t limit yourselves to evenings (usually the worst times for parents to try and talk without interruption or, worse, just when you are starting to crash). Depending upon ages of children and job demands, some couples are able to arrange breakfast alone for daily conversations or a lunch as a chance for a long conversation.
Phone conversations, texts or emails can fill some of the daily conversation needs. Taking a short evening walk or a long weekend one is good for your physical health as well as the health of your marriage. Putting a treadmill and a stationary bike side-by-side in your basement can also provide a chance to talk while getting some much needed workout time (and reduce conflicts about someone spending too much time at the gym).
Conversations should involve sharing information about work and family and other commitments or interests so you are able to nourish the sense of being best friends. Men need to talk about their jobs, an issue for some men who believe that increases rather than decreases their stress. Save the longer conversations for bigger issues. But don’t let things build up.
Being emotionally honest in a routine way is important. If a spouse says or does something that hurts your feelings, let him or her know. It doesn’t mean it has to be rehashed in detail. It doesn’t mean you have to get into an argument about what “really happened.” (There is no “truth” to be discovered; just respect the other person’s subjective experience of what happened instead of trying to defend yourself.)
Arranging an overnight or a weekend alone is a chance to rediscover the fun you once had when it was just the two of you. While it can be a challenge to arrange this if you don’t have family nearby to take the children, friends will often be willing to take turns watching each other’s children so others get that same chance to get away. If parents are not nearby (or a sibling), when you go to visit, work it out to have some alone time. Relatives usually love the chance to spend some time with your children without you around!
In addition to the prescribed couple time, there are two other critical daily rituals for couples that need to be honored and nurtured. Re-entry is one of the most important times of the day. As the family gets reunited at the end of school and work commitments, spouses need to genuinely look forward to seeing each other at the end of another demanding day.
The opportunity to hug each other and let go of some of the stress built up is a very special, intimate event that is sorely missed by those who are now divorced. Learn to appreciate this moment while you have the chance. It reaffirms that there are two of you joined together to cope with life’s challenges. It also should be a time to get yourselves in sync for the rest of the day. Review what the evening’s schedule is, what obligations each may have, what help may be needed from each other, and when there might be time to come together when the dust settles.
The other critical time is bedtime. No, not the children’s, the couples’! Probably about half of all parents go to bed at different times, contributing to a pattern of disconnection at the end of the day, undermining the sense of intimacy and adding to a sense of being alone in the marriage. Parents never let their children go to bed without some form of connection and reassurance that all is well. We read to our children, sit on their beds, lie next to them, hug them, and talk about the good things to look forward to tomorrow. While the extent and form of this change as our children get older, close families retain some part of this evening ritual even with teens.
So why doesn’t our beloved spouse deserve at least the same consideration? If one partner goes to bed earlier than the other, arrange for a signal that you are in bed and the other should come up for a similar intimate goodnight. Hugging, snuggling, and briefly putting to rest any leftover tensions with “I’m sorry. Let’s have a better day tomorrow.” It is a reaffirmation of the caring and respect you have for each other. It allows each to go to sleep with a sense of being together, even if it is at different times.
When going to bed at the same time, it is equally important to do more than just say goodnight. The old adage about never going to bed angry is truly valuable. A few moments of bodies warmly snuggled together releases a lot of tension and, again, reaffirms “coupleness.” One of the common complaints I hear about snuggling at any time during the evening, especially in bed, is from wives who say their husbands always interpret this as a signal to try to have sex. Usually this complaint comes from a couple whose sex life is unsatisfying. The role of sex in a marriage will be covered in a future article. But for now let it suffice that couples must talk about this and allow for affection that is not a signal for having sex.
Much of the connecting discussed so far has involved talking (and some physical affection). For some, especially men, connection is not always verbal. For these husbands, the male emphasis on intimacy as being side-by-side as opposed to face-to-face needs to be honored and nurtured. Again, this may require men to be creative and think of ways to communicate their caring. I think of one husband who used to leave for work before his wife awoke. He would make coffee for her, including setting out the cup, and he would write a short note each morning that he leaned against the cup. The content was often just something practical about the upcoming day’s events, but it always ended with a “love you.” His wife was able to appreciate this special intimate act from a husband who was particularly verbally challenged.
The side-by-side intimacy should focus on doing activities together. I’ve already mentioned walking or other exercising but doing something fun together should really be at the top of the list. Often couples have forgotten how to have fun together. Life has become all about work and tasks and becomes much too serious.
Yet when couples reflect on what led them into marriage, high on the list is nearly always a shared memory of having fun together. Sometimes it is a matter of thinking about what you used to do and making it a priority to get it back into the schedule. Other times, couples will talk about how their interests have changed and they don’t have that much in common anymore.
This requires some creativity, along with being committed to wanting to have fun again. Couples have ended up trying new activities together ranging from kayaking to cooking classes and rediscovering that there is a huge assortment of experiences out there to be tasted and shared.
One of the frequent barriers is that parents of younger children often feel they don’t spend enough time together as a family and Saturday nights typically become renting a video and sharing popcorn with the kids. While there is certainly value in this, it should not become the rule at the expense of the marriage. Remember what I said about the most important gift you can give to your children. So taking some time from the kids and investing it in the marriage is still doing something for the children.
I would like to end this article with a quote from the other book I urge couples to read, Judith Viorst’s “Grown-Up Marriage” (2003):
But if we imagine that marriage is where we can let it hang out day after day while continuing to excite and delight in each other, we are mistaken. If we imagine that marriage is where we can bitch, burp, snicker and snipe day after day without paying a price, we are wrong. We’re indulging in a fantasy of unearned, effortless love, the love an infant seeks from a perfect mommy. We are indulging in a fantasy that has little to do with love in a grown-up marriage.