Marriage is more than the joining of two individuals. Like children, marriage is the product of a loving union and relies on continuous care to survive.
As parents we would never say "I'm just too busy to feed my kids today." Yet many of us go weeks without caring for our marriage. Like a neglected child, the marriage weakens, loses luster, and downshifts into survival mode.
"Marriage is a living, breathing entity," says Morgan. "It is not just two people with the attitude of 'you take care of yourself and I'll take care of myself.' We need to invest in it, feed, nurture, and strengthen it."
If you suspect that your relationship with your spouse is in need of some TLC, it's time to push the guilt and excuses aside and start caring for your real first-born: your marriage.
10 Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong
Find Alone Time: As little as 15 minutes with your spouse can rekindle intimacy. Set the morning alarm 15 minutes early and then doze in each other's arms until it is time to get up. Send funny e-mails back and forth during your lunch break or chat on the phone while you eat.
Morgan knows one couple that designates the half-hour after dad comes home as "grown-up time." The kids watch 30 minutes of television while Mom and Dad reconnect. When parents carve out time before dinner, dishes, and homework, they have more energy to give each other than if they wait until after the kids go to bed.
Get Physical: How often a couple needs sex to feel close varies over time, but according to Dr. Judith Wallerstein, author of The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, no sex for weeks or months can be a sign of trouble. If initiating sex after a dry spell feels daunting, start slowly. Broach the subject by telling your partner how much you miss him or her. Get in the habit of going to bed at the same time and falling asleep in each other's arms. Take your morning shower together. Replace pecks on the cheek with full body hugs. Tickle each other, initiate a pillow fight, or hold hands when you watch television. Over time, you will relax enough to rediscover each other sexually.
Take a Walk Down Memory Lane: An inexpensive, fun way to reconnect with your spouse is to pull out old photo albums or home video of yourselves. I get a good laugh every time I see college photos of my husband sporting shoulder length hair and dinner-plate sized eyeglasses. Reliving your adventures as a couple reminds you of the wonderful traits that brought you together in the first place.
Communicate: This goes beyond "Good morning. Can you please take out the trash?" Although it can be uncomfortable to discuss sex, anger, envy, and the need for change, is essential to true intimacy. If you are not ready to admit these feelings to your spouse, start by exploring them yourself. Do periodic self-check-ins throughout the day. Ask yourself "How am I feeling? And what do I need to feel better?" Take a minute or two at the end of the day to jot down your thoughts in a journal. The better you are at admitting your own feelings, the easier it will be to discuss them with your partner.
Cultivate Empathy: Is it really worth chewing out your partner because he forgot to pick up a quart of milk? Or can you remember when you did something similar just last week? Phrases like "It happens to everybody," "Nobody's perfect," and "I've done that myself," bring partners together rather pushing them apart. Whenever possible, assume your partner is doing the very best he or she can at that moment. Accepting our own imperfections goes a long way toward forgiving them in others.
Compliment Each Other: Praising or thanking your partner is an easy way to bolster team spirit. Complimenting handling of the children can be particularly valuable. "Saying something like 'look how Jane lights up when you walk in the door' reaffirms a spouse's importance to the family," says Dr. Wallerstein. Some men feel insecure about diapering, feeding, or bathing a new baby. Daily reassurance and compliments bolster a man's self-confidence and encourage him to stay involved.
Go on a Date: Since you've had children, "dinner and a movie" has become "dinner and a movie and money for the babysitter." The high cost of going out makes staying in and renting a movie hard to resist, but getting out of the house is vital, particularly if one partner is home full-time with the children. To cut down on costs, order a gourmet drink or dessert instead of dinner. Window shop, spend five dollars each at an arcade, or scan the papers for free concerts and art shows. Aim for one night out a week by the time your baby is 6 months old. Swapping babysitting duties with another couple in your neighborhood is a great way to save on babysitters.