- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

Kathleen Hutton of Falls Church recognized a few years ago that she and her husband had completely lost their romantic spark. Instead of walks in the park and intimacy in the bedroom, their time was spent working, taking care of their four children, four dogs and dozens of household duties.

“One day you realize you’ve become one of those couples that doesn’t even communicate at the dinner table,” says Mrs. Hutton, who chooses not to use her real name for privacy reasons. “That’s when you have to go back to the basics — we had to figure out what attracted us to each other in the first place.”

Mrs. Hutton and her husband of 17 years, who are now in couple’s counseling and say they have made some progress, are far from unique in having lost the spark after children arrive.

It’s common for parents to feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, but there are ways to regain the romance and find time to be a couple again, psychologists say.

“It goes against the myth that children make couples more romantic … but when children enter the picture, the marriage is actually more likely to crash and burn,” says Willard F. Harley Jr., author of “His Needs, Her Needs for Parents: Keeping Romance Alive.” “You have less time, but your need for intimacy hasn’t changed just because you have children.”

All it takes is time and effort to ensure that romance and intimacy thrive even when the children arrive, says Mr. Harley, who holds a doctorate in psychology and counsels couples in the St. Paul, Minn., area.

He says there are four effective ways to try to maintain or regain the spark: “You still need to meet your spouse’s needs for intimate affection, sexual fulfillment, intimate conversation and recreational companionship.”

Men and women, however, differ in how they view these aspects of intimacy. Men tend to value sexual fulfillment and recreational companionship (such as playing golf together or going to an ice-hockey game) most while women feel more in need of intimate affection and intimate conversation, Mr. Harley says.

Carol Ummel Lindquist, author of “Happily Married with Kids — It’s Not Just a Fairy Tale,” says sometimes women, particularly if they are staying at home with the children and if they are nursing, may need some time to warm up to the thought of intimacy.

“If you’ve had children hanging on you all day, more physical contact may be the last thing you want,” Ms. Lindquist says.

She recommends the husband give the wife about 20 minutes to do something just for herself, whether it’s taking a bath or reading, just something where there are no social or physical demands on her, says Ms. Lindquist, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and counsels couples in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Mrs. Hutton says she can relate to the differences in male and female intimacy needs.

“[My husband] likes to get to it, so to speak, but I like to converse, hold hands, kiss when we wake up in the morning, just basic niceties,” she says.

Since the husband’s and wife’s needs often differ, it’s important to sit down and have a conversation about it, Mr. Harley says. The parties need to outline what exactly they want and need in terms of intimacy. Writing it down is not a bad idea, he says.

Finding time

Before getting to the intimacy needs, the couple needs to find the time between work and child care as well as household chores and other everyday duties.

Mrs. Hutton says she and her husband try to spend at least an hour a day just the two of them uninterrupted by children.

“But it’s hard because the children’s activities have just exploded in the last few years,” she says. Her children, who range in age from 5 to 15, are involved in many after-school activities, including tae kwon do, swimming, religious school, dance, tutoring, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and singing.

Some parents split child care shifts. The wife car pools a couple of times a week to activities, and the husband drives the remaining days. This type of division of labor is something that Mr. Harley advises against because splitting shifts means the couple sees even less of each other.

“One of the worst solutions is split shifts,” he says. “Those situations inevitably turn into bad marriages. Those couples have absolutely no time for each other.”

It’s better to take turns with other parents, as in a baby-sitting co-op, or hire a baby sitter to free up some time for the couple, Mr. Harley says.

Some psychologists, such as Ms. Lindquist, recommend spending a minimum of about 20 to 30 minutes a day of uninterrupted time with the spouse. But she acknowledges that “you’re going to be happier the more time you put in.”

She divides that time into “fun dates” and “staff dates.” The fun dates should be devoted to affection, fun and intimacy, and the staff dates are for practical issues, such as the division of household chores.

Dividing household chores can be a tough one, Ms. Lindquist says, because women, even those who work full time outside the home, tend to do two or three times more than men and then get resentful about the inequality.

“If men do more than their dads did, they feel like they’re doing great,” she says. “Women usually don’t see it that way.”

Susan Ward, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Inova Keller Center in Falls Church, says resentments can be a sure way to preclude any chance of romance.

“Who feels warm and fuzzy toward somebody who is resentful?” says Mrs. Ward, who counsels Mrs. Hutton and her husband.

The Inova Keller Center, a branch of the Inova Health System, offers outpatient behavioral health services for children, adolescents and their families.

Mr. Harley suggests dividing up chores and even hiring a cleaning service if housework becomes overwhelming because 20 to 30 minutes a day devoted to intimacy is far from enough.

“You need to schedule 15 hours a week for each other,” he says. “The way I see it, it’s a part-time job that pays great dividends.”

Mr. Harley says he acknowledges that 15 hours might sound daunting, but that’s simply the minimum amount of time couples need to spend together, uninterrupted, to maintain a romantic relationship.

In addition to hiring baby sitters, he recommends joining baby-sitting co-ops, meeting each other for lunch and watching less television (to take advantage of the precious evening hours when the children are sleeping).

“What it boils down to is it takes time to be in love,” he says.

By studying how people manage extramarital affairs — which take time and money — Mr. Harley says he has come to realize that if there is a will, there is a way.

“If I were to give you a million dollars to be in love, you’d figure out a way to be in love,” he says, referring to husbands and wives. “So, you know you can do it.”

The good news is practice makes perfect.

“A romantic relationship is addictive,” he says. “When people are in love, dopamine is released in the brain and that is the most addictive substance that we’ve got.”

Good role models

Having a good marital relationship, which includes intimacy, is not just essential for the couple, but equally important for the children, Mrs. Ward says.

“Parents may not realize it, but kids pick up on tension,” she says. “It can cause them to misbehave, act out and take advantage of any guilt the parents feel.”

This happened in Mrs. Hutton’s family. Her oldest son, who is now 15, saw a rift between his parents and understood that they would not present a united front whenever he had requests, such as sleepovers, she says.

Part of Mrs. Hutton’s and her husband’s therapy has entailed redefining some boundaries between them and their children. The youngest one, who is 5, is no longer allowed to spend every night in her parents’ bed, for example. And all the children have been told they need to respect and not interrupt their parents’ private time.

“They’re in shell shock, I think,” Mrs. Hutton says. “They’re not used to us making those kinds of demands.”

It’s also important for the children to see their parents in love, Mrs. Ward says. It’s their first encounter with a marital relationship.

“By watching their parents, children learn about gender issues, marriage and love,” she says. “So, think about what are some things you want to teach your child. … If you want to teach them to be a good person and to show love and at the same time you’re fighting with your spouse all the time, you’re sending mixed signals.”

Mr. Harley agrees.

“It’s essentially impossible for parents to set the best examples of thoughtfulness when they’re not in love with each other,” he says.

Ms. Lindquist points out, however, that love evolves and it’s not realistic to expect or demand the honeymoon phase, butterflies-in-your-stomach type of lovetoward a spouse of 20 years. Mature love entails a deeper attachment and friendship.

“You’ve been in the trenches together, but you still feel loved as you are, and you still feel romantic,” she says.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “HIS NEEDS, HER NEEDS FOR PARENTS: KEEPING ROMANCE ALIVE,” BY WILLARD F. HARLEY JR., FLEMING H. REVELL CO., 2003. THIS BOOK GIVES ADVICE ON WHAT PARENTS CAN DO TO KEEP THEIR MARRIAGE HEALTHY AND THEIR ROMANCE ALIVE — FOR THEIR OWN SAKE AND FOR THAT OF THE CHILDREN. IT ALSO OFFERS PRACTICAL STEPS ON TOPICS SUCH AS SPENDING QUALITY TIME AS A COUPLE, DECIDING ON CHILD-TRAINING METHODS AND DIVIDING DOMESTIC RESPONSIBILITIES.

• “HAPPILY MARRIED WITH KIDS — IT’S NOT JUST A FAIRY TALE,” BY CAROL UMMEL LINDQUIST, BERKELEY PUBLISHING GROUP, 2004. THIS BOOK OFFERS ADVICE TO THE MANY PARENTS WHO SAY THEY HAVE LESS SEX AND MORE ARGUMENTS THAN BEFORE CHILDREN ENTERED THE PICTURE. IT OFFERS TIPS ON HOW TO AVOID EXHAUSTION AND DISRUPTION, MANAGE CONFLICTS AND IMPROVE COMMUNICATION, STAY BEST FRIENDS WITH ONE’S SPOUSE, BALANCE WORK AND HOME, AND REVIVE ONE’S SEX LIFE.

• “IS THERE REALLY SEX AFTER KIDS? A MOM-TO-MOM CHAT ON KEEPING INTIMACY ALIVE WITH KIDS,” BY JILL SAVAGE, ZONDERVAN, 2003. THIS IS A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO HELP WOMEN RISE ABOVE FRUSTRATIONS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS TO RESTORE INTIMACY, PLEASURE, SPONTANEITY AND PASSION IN MARRIAGE. IT FOCUSES ON MARITAL INTIMACY IN ALL ITS MANIFESTATIONS, INCLUDING EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL CLOSENESS, AS WELL AS SEXUALITY. IT TALKS ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATING A MARRIAGE-CENTERED FAMILY RATHER THAN A CHILD-CENTERED FAMILY.

• “GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: A GUIDE FOR COUPLES,” BY HARVILLE HENDRIX, HENRY HOLT & CO., 2001. THIS BOOK PROVIDES 16 EXERCISES FOR MARRIED COUPLES THAT HELP ENHANCE COMMUNICATION, STOP SELF-DEFEATING BEHAVIOR AND ACHIEVE MUTUAL EMOTIONAL SATISFACTION. THE STEP-BY-STEP EXERCISES ARE INTENDED TO LEAD TO INSIGHT, RESOLUTION AND REVITALIZATION OF THE MARRIAGE.

ASSOCIATIONS —

• AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPY, 112 S. ALFRED ST., ALEXANDRIA, VA 22314-3061. PHONE: 703/838-9808. WEB SITE: WWW.AAMFT.ORG. THIS PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION REPRESENTS MORE THAN 23,000 MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPISTS THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES, CANADA AND ABROAD. IT OFFERS INFORMATION ON VARIOUS FAMILY RELATED PROBLEMS AND TOPICS, AS WELL AS PROVIDING ASSISTANCE IN LOCATING A NEARBY FAMILY AND MARRIAGE THERAPIST.

ONLINE —

• THE COALITION FOR MARRIAGE, FAMILY AND COUPLES EDUCATION, A WASHINGTON-BASED NONPARTISAN, NONDENOMINATIONAL GROUP, PROVIDES INFORMATION ON HOW TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY MARRIAGE ON ITS WEB SITE, WWW.SMARTMARRIAGES.COM. THE ORGANIZATION ALSO OFFERS A NEWSLETTER, A CONFERENCE, CLASSES AND A WEB LOG.


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