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Health & Sex

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7 Ways to Put Your Marriage First

The child-centered life is hard on a couple and not so great for the kids. Learn how focusing on your relationship can not only yield a healthier marriage but also happier children.

So how can two overworked, overtired, overeverythinged parents realistically stay connected and dodge these problems?

  • First rule: Start small. "Don't think, 'We'll change our lives! We'll have date night every single weekend!' Because big shifts like that aren't realistic," says Philip Cowan. Adds Davidson: "The trick is to make the most out of being together and create bubbles of intimacy throughout the day." For example, Jocelyn Goldberg, she of the Target date, now wakes her husband 15 minutes earlier every morning so they can chat over coffee. Other couples report dining à deux after the kids are asleep at least one night a week. "Every now and then on a Saturday night, my husband and I have our own little party," says Diana Tynan, 33, a mom with kids ages 3 and 2 in Maplewood, NJ. "We watch movies, drink beer, play Springsteen albums, stay up too late. It takes off the pressure of parenthood. Suddenly, it's just us again."

Wendy Unker, a 39-year-old mom from West Hartford, CT, who has kids ages 6, 9, and 12, had a moment of relationship awakening when her in-laws took the children for the day. "My husband and I were downright giddy — we realized the kids had consumed our lives, and we'd had barely any couple time in a year," she says. "After that, we started doing everyday things together, like preparing dinner as the kids played. We feel more bonded. And our older daughter — who's had a frustrating habit of interrupting our conversations and generally demanding a lot of attention — has backed off. I think she's getting that we're not just Mom and Dad; we're a couple."

  • Have kid-free conversations. "When I'm out with my husband, our rule is, we don't discuss the kids; we're all about us," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., a mom of four and an ob-gyn in New York City who regularly dispenses that advice to patients. Code gives this suggestion: "At the end of your day, share a highlight and a lowlight, ideally not involving the kids — one specific thing that made you really happy during the day, and one specific thing that annoyed you. It helps you instantly connect, and sparks longer conversations."
  • Stay in touch during the day. Quickies are fine; Dr. Hutcherson and her husband text-message to say hi and share discoveries, like a new movie they've read about and want to see on their next night out. "My husband and I have a fun way of communicating via cell phone pictures," says Alle Ries, 38, from Atlanta. "If he's in a bad mood, I'll send him a shot of my smile to let him know I'm thinking of him. Or at work, I'll get a buzz from my phone and find a shot of a flower he saw on the way to the office. It feels great to know he's thinking of me."
  • Try new things together. Last year, Julia Langley, 44, a Bethesda, MD, mom with two kids ages 12 and 14, signed up for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure, a walk to raise awareness about breast cancer. "I trained on weekends, and asked my husband to join me," she says. "It's been a challenge finding ways to connect as the girls get older and their schedules get more hectic. The walks gave us concentrated time together without the pressure of making scintillating conversation. If we had that, great. If not, we'd fall into a rhythm of walking that brought us close without words. We still keep up those walks."
  • Bring on the PDA. Nobody's suggesting you make out in front of the kids, but being affectionate keeps you connected and shows the children an important part of your marriage. "You're modeling what a good relationship is like — helpful for your children down the road," says Braun.
  • Make pleasure a priority. "Spontaneity may be more fun, but if you're realistic and plan for sex, at least you'll have it," says Davidson. "Even if you're tired, once you engage your senses you will get into it." A mother of two told me conspiratorially, "We sneak in sex when we can. It's surprising how hot 'quick!-the-kids-are-in-the-backyard-lock-the-door-and-let's-do-it' sex can be." Any kind of intimacy is important, notes Dr. Hutcherson: "I tell patients to hold hands or spoon when they fall asleep. The pleasure chemicals released from skin-to-skin contact bond you."
  • Don't be a martyr. Getting your husband to do his fair share around the house means you'll be less zonked, less resentful, and more up for sex. "Don't ask your husband to 'help' you," says Davidson, "because that implies housework and child rearing are your job and he's just pitching in. It's far better to say, 'We need to share tasks. When I do most of them, not only do I lack energy for sex, but I'm not in the mood.'"

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