It's a familiar scene for couples today. The kids are in bed; it should be you-and-me time. But instead of relaxing with each other, both parents go to work.
It could be job related — e-mail, phone calls, a project. It could be the business of the family — bills, housekeeping, maintenance, phone calls for school or sports events. All of a sudden, it's 10:30 or 11 p.m.
He looks at her. She looks at him. Both are tired — it's already been a long day. Add in the personality and gender differences that accompany expectations for romance and sex, and it might seem easier to just say, "Good night, honey," and pin hopes on the weekend.
Society's changes over the past few decades have exacerbated the problem of keeping alive the spark that originally brought couples together.
Usually, both husband and wife work. Financial concerns are greater than ever. And they've got a third job when they get home at the end of the day — semi-pro kid coach.
"Twenty years ago, the parenting job was to keep them safe, enjoy them and make sure they had presentable manners," says Mimi Doe, author of Busy but Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family, and founder of SpiritualParenting.com. "Now parents almost see themselves as private coaches."
They monitor their kids for their talents, nurture them, groom them, foot the bill for lessons.
That's on top of being part of a nation whose citizens work more than anybody else in the world, says James Morris, outgoing president of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the professional association for the field of marriage and family therapy. That means less time for the family — and for your partner.
Technology — television, computers, the Internet, cell phones, e-mail devices — makes even more inroads on that time, adds Mark Merrill, president of Family First, a non-profit, independent research and communications organization specializing in strengthening the family.
Adding to the stress of the situation is what Morris calls the great American myth that successful marriages bloom effortlessly out of torrid love affairs. If you have to work at it or plan things, it's not true love.
"It's 'Let's make love and be spontaneous about it,' " says Morris.
Plan to Make Love
Certainly, it's important to hang onto those memories of those early euphoric days when you discovered each other. But that euphoria is not going to power your marriage, especially when juggling a jam-packed life, say the experts.
Marriages still need lots of nurturing — and that means work. That work includes planning for making love and articulating desires.
"It's OK to give it some forethought and to make a request of a spouse and say, 'Oh, hey, I love it when you do that,' or 'I'd love it if you'd do this,' " says Morris. The alternative — expecting your partner to read your mind, is an invitation to disappointment. To expect a partner to remember or always know what pleases you is unrealistic, given the constant press of more mundane but equally essential details of life.
So, plan ahead. Talk to each other — even if it's sometimes by voicemail or e-mail, says Doe.
Set up times with your partner to lay out your shared goals and dreams — and don't confuse these with old-fashioned "dates," which are also key (see "Tending the Flame," below).
Be tolerant. Hold the criticism. Find a hobby you can share. And remember and recapture those first euphoric feelings when you first met — and recapture them.
Tending the Flame
Here are some ways to keep romance alive in your relationship, according to Doe, Merrill and Morris:
Make yourself the master of technology. Turn off the cell phone, the Blackberry, ignore e-mail, let phone calls go into voicemail during dinner.
Learn a two-letter word: No. Say no to work, the media, even, on occasion, to your children, in order to spend time with your spouse.
Make dates. It can be once a week, or once every two weeks. It can be dinner or a movie, as modest as a walk alone together or as ambitious as an overnight away — recruit friends or grandparents to stay with the kids.
Turn off the TV. It's distracting and energy sapping. Use the media mindfully — and save time for your spouse. Couples are dubious initially, then amazed at the difference it makes.
Appreciate and acknowledge each other in front of your children. Give praise and credit when it's due — for coming home in time for dinner, for making a meal. It's good for parents — and sets a healthy example for kids, too.