How to keep the spark going
by Dave Whitaker
Photo: Josh Hawkins
Eugene and Tonisha Muhammad of Chicago cuddle with their six children.
I confess. I've always been cynical about Valentine's Day. I mean, c'mon, it's a Hallmark holiday meant for pimply teens and Romeo posers. The rest of us are forced to cave to the pressure of this communal day of affection and scrape up an expression of love for our partner a bit more original than a box of chocolates or a dozen roses.
OK, scrape up is not the best choice of words, but Valentine's Day seems even more artificial in light of the monumental commitment my wife and I made to each other at the altar. This one's for keeps, which means the spark can't wait for some designated day in February. But the truth is, after having a couple kids, it often does.
I used to pride myself on being well ahead of the romance curve by the time Feb. 14 rolled around. These days that date and all its packaged sweetner looms as a stiff reminder of how difficult it has become to keep the relationship feeling like a relationship rather than a small business partnership.
This shop opens early each day as the kids awake with the sun, if not earlier. The mad scramble begins with strained attempts to properly clean, feed and cloth them and ourselves before tackling the logistics of daily commutes to schools, jobs, grocery stores and after-school adventures. At the end of the day, when the spirited tikes are finally nestled in their beds, the dishes have been done, the floor has been swept, the laundry has been washed, the bills have been paid and the dog has been walked-wait, we don't have a dog-but you get the picture. There's always more to be done, which means finding time in this teeming schedule for even stimulating conversation, let alone actual intimacy between my wife and me, is difficult.
We know we're not alone. Parents of young children are particularly susceptible to seeing their love life take a back seat to the toddling loves of their life. It's not something that people announce with a bullhorn, but it creeps out in conversation or is disguised in gentle wisecracks. Adjusting your spousal relationship to meet the needs of, say, kids in their first five years of life isn't something that comes all that naturally, especially when you never really took the time to anticipate all the rough spots that might arise.
So when Valentine's Day rears its syrupy head, young parents in the throes of raising children are likely to employ it as a makeshift measuring stick of where they once were, and hope to be again. After days and nights filled with all the energetic joy of children and the leaky sippy cups, heavy diapers and mighty meltdowns that come with them, even stubborn skeptics like me are more likely to make the most of this cream-puff of a holiday.
"I'll tell you this, a dozen roses on Valentine's Day won't make up for a year's worth of neglect." Ouch. Those are the enlightened words of Michele Weiner-Davis, a.k.a. "the divorce buster." With a private practice based in Woodstock, Weiner-Davis is a nationally-recognized therapist and author whose books, workshops and seminars have made her solution-oriented approach to marital woes a standard-bearer in the ever-growing cottage industry of marriage education.
I call Weiner-Davis to get an expert opinion but, like any good reporter, I don't let on that I am anything other than an objective observer of the issues. Did I mention how much I love my wife? Words can't describe. And my kids? Brilliant, hilarious. I can't imagine life without them. Of course, I can imagine a few days without them. Experts like Weiner-Davis claim getting away from your kids and getting together as mates, even for a few precious moments a day, is essential in keeping your love alive.
"With jobs and kids and hobbies and everyday life there is a lot of pressure these days and a lot of things that tend to push your one-on-one relationship to the back burner," she says. "As the pressures mount, the friendship and intimacy between couples begins to drop out of the relationship. People have to recognize that and make time for each other. The very best thing you can do for your children is to put your marriage first. If you don't, there may not be a marriage."
She's not kidding. In Illinois in 2001, about 180,000 people chose to get married, while about 80,000 people chose to end their marriages, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Weiner-Davis and others like her have been trying to turn this divorce tide by offering hope and inspiration to the masses. Her latest book, "The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couples Guide to Boosting Their Marital Libido," is a sort of how-to that few parents ever imagined they'd feel the need to peruse.
"Nobody figures it will happen to them," says William Doherty, another highly acclaimed therapist in the field. Having come across his latest book, "Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart," I call him as well. Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, tries to disarm the feeling of isolation that usually accompanies couples who have drifted into the grind of managing the household and neglecting their marriage. "It's the common cold of marriage, and people should actually be surprised if it doesn't happen to them," he says.
There's usually a bit of a honeymoon in the relationship after a newborn arrives, according to Doherty, but as the responsibilities stack up and leisure time dissipates it's only natural to begin feeling less connected to your spouse on a daily basis. "When you're falling in love, you go on dates," he says. "Once you have kids it's not as easy to put time aside for each other, but you have to."
When his own children were young, Doherty says he and his wife put aside 15 minutes after dinner each night to talk together while the children kept busy with something else. It was a house rule. "Now, we have a hot tub in our house and six times a week we meet there at 10 p.m."
If I had a bubbling hot tub awaiting me each evening my kids would never get away with stretching their bedtimes. Doherty's larger point, however, is that if couples realize this slide into a romantic rut is a common one they may be more willing to let issues rise to the surface.
"There is always a stigma about any kind of therapy, but there's even a stigma of simply talking about normal marital problems," says Doherty. "We talk about all the typical problems of raising children, but we don't talk about our marriages."
It seems that more and more people have begun talking and reading and reaching out to experts like Doherty and Weiner-Davis in search of preventative measures. "Marriage education is growing and it is separate from marriage therapy," Weiner-Davis points out. "It's the act of gaining lessons and insight that can work to improve or prevent common problems. Couples usually wait until some crisis arises before seeking therapy. Some people wait until there is no alternative than to get help."
The traveling seminar titled "Keeping Love Alive," makes a stop in Palatine on March 8. (For information, call (815) 337-8000 or visit www.divorcebusting.com)
Weiner-Davis offers research-based knowledge that tackles such issues as how to negotiate in a relationship, how to deal with disagreements and how to work toward better sex. Both Weiner-Davis and Doherty refer to marriage as a work in progress, a sacred alliance in need of consistent nurturing.
"We tend to take marriage for granted," says Doherty. "We just need to be more attentive about it, in the same way we are about our child rearing, about our family and about our other interests. There are a lot of loving people who won't neglect their children but will neglect their marriage. It doesn't have to be either-or. If you exist only for your kids, you're not passing on to them a good model for healthy relationships."
My model on manufactured rituals such as Valentine's Day likely comes from my parents. I have no real memory of them trading large, heart-shaped cards or revealing clothing. Who knows, there may have been a secret, late-night rendezvous? Perish the thought. As one of seven kids, I know they craved some alone time for many, many years. When one of us would go off to college, they'd pretty much drop us at the curb and tell us it was OK to write.
Like Weiner-Davis, Doherty concedes Valentine's Day can give too many people a one-day out, but ultimately he sees it as a good thing. "Well, at least there's one day where there is social support that focuses on an intimate relationship," he says. "That's not a bad idea. We could be worse off without it. The problem is that Valentine's Day tends to identify with people falling in love or dating and not married couples."
Married couples will struggle, according to Weiner-Davis. "Even the best of them experience rough spots, but when the rough times become even or begin to outweigh the good times, that's a sure sign it's time to do something about it. When you feel less and less energy to make up after an argument, when you go your separate ways or feel like you have less meaningful conversations, those are signs you need to invest more time in each other."
Regaining the spark in your relationship, according to Doherty, involves setting a strategy that helps you resist the natural drift and making a plan that ensures you and your spouse quiet time together.
"You have to put energy into it all the time," adds Weiner-Davis. She continues: "With something like Valentine's Day, it's important to ask yourself not just what your spouse really needs, but what he or she needs to feel loved. When we give gifts we tend to give what we would want to receive, but real giving is to consider what your partner really needs instead. On a daily basis there are simple things that can go a long way. Even just a thanks for picking up the kids at soccer practice or a little recognition for the positive things the person brings to your life. Sometimes we recognize only the shortcomings in our relationships and we're less likely to compliment or celebrate the good. Change occurs when we make a concerted effort to make comments of appreciation."
Sometimes I go days with a mental list of compliments meant for my lovely bride. I'm embarrassed to say they often get swallowed up in my memory as baths, pajamas and bedtime stories dominate our evenings and leave us zapped. I've considered typing up my list in an e-mail to her, but I'm sure Doherty and Weiner-Davis would suggest I could do better than a technological love note. It might be time to make a plan.
"Over a million people are divorced each year and 10 to 15 percent of those are for a lack of communication, of couples just drifting apart," Weiner-Davis insists. "Those problems are solvable. People think they've tried everything, but they haven't even begun."
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