If you were making a movie about your marriage, what would you call it? If your answer is closer to The Big Chill than Endless Love, you're not alone. Parenthood is famous for squeezing the romance out of a relationship. During your first year as a mom, the reasons are obvious -- you're sleep deprived and suffering from hormone-induced mood swings. The baby grabs your attention 24/7. But long after the nursing bra has been retired, many women continue to feel bummed and burned out by the stresses of raising kids, working, cooking, and cleaning. The result? A marriage that feels about as romantic as changing a dirty diaper.
The good news is that you can have passion for as long as you both do live, but you can't expect it to simply happen. Luckily, getting out of the doldrums—and back in the groove -- isn't all that complicated. Here are 12 simple strategies.
1. Do the fun things that used to make you feel close. Think back to your pre-kid and even pre-marriage days. What were the kinds of activities that the two of you enjoyed as a couple? It's time for you to rediscover them -- and each other in the process. Go ahead and play footsie under the table once again, or blast your old Duran Duran CDs and dance in the kitchen. Miss those silly fondue dinners you lingered over as newlyweds -- the ones where you'd have to kiss if either of you "accidentally" dropped your bread into the cheese? Break out the Sterno.
2. Make time for each other. "When I ask couples to track how they spend their time, they're always surprised to discover how many hours are eaten up by unessential activities, such as surfing the Net or watching TV," says Pamela Jordan, Ph.D., coauthor of Becoming Parents: How to Strengthen Your Marriage as Your Family Grows. Remember, we all get the same 24 hours each day -- it's how you spend them that makes the difference. Try to free up some time, even if it's just a few minutes daily, to talk and reconnect -- say, after the kids have gone to bed and before you tackle any household chores..
A weekly date is also a must. Even if you just go to the local coffee place or hit the gym together, it signals your joint commitment to continue to nourish your relationship.
3. Make dates for sex. Why keep waiting for the opportunity to present itself? Scheduling time for intimacy may sound unromantic, but it's just the opposite: Fantasizing about it (and maybe even whispering something spicy in your sweetie's ear) only heightens the anticipation.
4. Just do it. The kids are asleep at last. All of them! It's a great time for a little nookie, except for one problem: You're not in the mood. Here are two words for you -- so what? There are days when you feel the same way about work, but you still go to the office. You have to learn how to engage emotionally even when you're ambivalent, says David Treadway, Ph.D., a couples therapist and author of Intimacy, Change, and Other Therapeutic Mysteries.
This goes beyond the bedroom. Say you and your husband are arguing about bills. After a tense exchange, he walks over and massages your neck. Instead of pushing him away, try to respond. Find a way to keep anger and everyday stress from interfering with intimacy.
5. Be sexy even when there's no chance of having sex. Kiss in the elevator, make out in the car, slide your hands in each other's coat pockets on a cold afternoon -- whatever creates an amorous atmosphere. Simply leaving a sexy phone message during the day (one that doesn't include a request to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home) can make your spouse smile.
6. Establish no-sex nights too. Paradoxically, this can also be a libido booster. Most couples are tyrannized by the tension of who is going to initiate, and when, Dr. Treadway says. "The effort that goes into making the move is enormous, and being rejected is painful," he explains. Having a couple of days a week when lovemaking is off-limits can be a tremendous relief to both partners.
7. Deal with conflicts. If (okay, when) your husband flakes out on his chores, how do you react? Do you say something, or roll your eyes and zip your lips? Ignoring the problem may seem easier, but you'll both pay, warns psychologist Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., a professor at Pepperdine University, in Irvine, California.
If you say nothing, maybe you'll feel like a martyr. But you'll probably also nurse a very unhealthy grudge. "Before you know it, everything your partner does will make you mad," Dr. Sultanoff says. It's worth it to keep the channels of communication open.
8. Sleep naked. Ditching that flannel nightgown or T-shirt and boxers can change your life. There is a vulnerability about skin on skin that makes it impossible to stay angry for long.
9. Sneak off with your spouse. Many couples put their kids before their marriage without even realizing it. If you and your partner routinely exchange housekeeping details as you sail past each other every day, you're one of them.
Hire a sitter or sweet-talk your in-laws, and squeeze in a weekend getaway every month or two. If you make arrangements in advance, the anticipation alone will give you a breather from stress. And remind yourself that not only is it okay to take time away from your kids, it's wise. You have to distance yourselves from them a little before the two of you can be close. Anyone can do it -- just hold hands and jump.
10. Don't keep score on orgasms. Face it: You simply aren't going to have intense, explosive sex every single time. In fact, it's the exception, not the norm. So relax, and try to enjoy sex for what it is, instead of measuring each encounter on the Richter scale.
11. Find out your spouse's idea of TLC. Ask him to tell you what makes him feel cared for -- breakfast in bed, the chance to watch a football game undisturbed -- and do one thing from the list regularly. (Duh note to guys: This does not include sex.)
12. Tell him what you want. Some women believe in marital ESP. "They think, 'If my husband really loved me, he'd know what I want,' " says Valerie Raskin, M.D., a Chicago psychiatrist and author of Great Sex for Moms. As if! Unless you tell him so, your partner won't ever guess how romantic it would be if he washed your hair or let you sleep in on a weekend. (Duh note to women: This does not include clothes shopping.)