I was at a cookout a few years ago when my husband's buddy -- let's call him John -- gently kissed his wife on the lips and said to her, "Now that was just what I needed."
"My husband would never kiss me in public like that," I thought. "Why can't Mark be more like John? Why didn't I marry a guy like John?"
Back then, I had so many "Why didn't I marry a John?" moments about so many husbands of so many other women. I'd hear a friend talking animatedly with her husband and I'd think, "We don't talk like that." Or a friend would tell me that her husband does all of the cooking, and I'd say to myself, "Mark hasn't cooked for me since he wooed me with his baked ziti. What I wouldn't give for a husband who cooks." Could my husband-envy possibly be normal?
As it turns out, it was. It's especially normal to reevaluate your relationship after you have a child. When I became a mom, my husband and I went from being a basically happy couple to being two people who had little to say to each other, who didn't enjoy the company of each other's naked bodies, and who would rather spend time alone than together.
Eventually, I decided to go on a marriage-improvement mission that involved reading self-help books, interviewing my married friends, and scouring the Internet. I learned a lot. For one thing, I learned that it's pointless to worry whether your marriage is normal. With about half of marriages ending in divorce and even more spouses contemplating it, aiming for a normal marriage is like aiming for a 2.0 grade point average. You can do better. You can achieve an abnormally great marriage instead. To do so, consider these symptoms of normalcy, and use our advice to make your marriage one that other women will envy.
However, this is a sign that something important is missing in your marriage. For instance, on that day I saw John kiss his wife, I realized that I craved more tenderness. So I told Mark that I didn't always feel beautiful or sexy and that I'd appreciate his saying and doing things to make me feel that way. Fortunately, he accepted the challenge, and now he whistles whenever he catches me walking around in my panties, calls me "Hot Mama" in front of other people, and makes a big fuss on the rare occasions when I wear makeup and heels. How did I get those dramatic results? I'll share my strategies.
Point out other great husbands. But do it in a positive way. Whenever you notice a husband doing something nice, mention to yours, "Wow, that was really sweet. I bet she's going to make him a happy man later tonight."
Be honest about what you want. Men (and women) can be seriously clueless. If you need more "me time," ask for it. If you want help with the housework, say so. And when he does what you want, be sure to thank him.
Voice your desires with compassion. If you bully him, he'll resist -- but if you calmly express your wishes, he'll probably try to make them come true. When I want Mark to do something for me, I sit next to him, smile, put my palm on his thigh, and keep my request to three sentences or less. For instance: "Honey, could you help me with bedtime duty? I'm exhausted."
Before working on my marriage, it felt as if our spark had fallen into the Atlantic Ocean and been extinguished. Had I ever been attracted to my husband? I just couldn't remember. It was the best-seller Hot Monogamy, by Pat Love, Ed.D., that helped me heat my marriage back up. Thanks to Dr. Love (yes, that's her name), I began thinking of romance as how my husband displays his adoration for me, and I pondered what made me feel adored. For inspiration, I asked other women. They told me about little things like coffee brought to them in bed -- with just the right amount of cream and sugar. My friend Mary told me she knew her husband thought the world of her when he called from Sam's Club and told her that Glade PlugIns were on deep discount. Then he dug through the giant display until he found all the vanilla-scented ones. He did this because he knew two things about Mary that no one else knows (until now, that is): 1. Mary loves a good bargain. 2. Mary's favorite plug-in scent is vanilla.
"Women don't just want to be desired," says Dr. Love. "We want to be uniquely desired." In other words, we crave to be understood and cherished for what makes us different from all the billions of other women our husbands could have married. These are ways to teach your husband to display his unique desire for you.
Share what romance means to you. Every woman defines it a little differently. I realized that for me, romance is partly about my husband making my life easier and it's partly about him making me feel beautiful. Once he understood this, he found ways to accomplish both.
Put it in writing. I actually created a romance instruction manual for him that included a numbered list of suggestions like "encourage me to face my fears" and "when I seem tired or overwhelmed, do more without being asked." Call me a control freak, but romance came back into my marriage in a big, powerful way. Mark began doing more housework and parenting. He began cutting flowers from the yard and bringing them to me. He even filled my car's gas tank when he noticed it was almost empty. He did all of this because the manual gave him ideas to pull from.
Give him "attaboys." Positive reinforcement will lead to more romance in the future. Thank him with words, a smile, a hug, or a trip to the bedroom.
A friend once told me that she'd rather clean the toilet than bed down with her husband. And I totally get it. After all, it's fairly quick and easy to clean a toilet. Just squirt, scrub, and flush. It might be a dirty job, but it's over and done in a minute flat. Sex is more complicated, especially when you're not getting enough sleep or you feel overwhelmed. That's when sex can start to feel robotic and monotonous, and when your mind keeps drifting to unsexy thoughts. "I ask couples about their sex life because that is one of the best barometers of the overall functioning of a relationship, and they often will tell me that their sex life started to decline after the birth of their first or second child," says psychologist John Friel, Ph.D., who, with his wife, Linda, wrote The 7 Best Things (Happy) Couples Do. These are some ways to turn a lackluster sex life around.
Switch to daytime sex. If possible, look into ways to have sex when you are feeling more energetic. Can you meet at home (or even a hotel) for a lunchtime romp? Also, get creative about prioritizing rest and relaxation. Maybe take turns sleeping in or napping on the weekends.
Be more assertive. If you're still fuming over the dinner dishes that he never got around to washing, you'll have a hard time relaxing. At the same time, withholding sex punishes you more because it cheats you out of an orgasm (which you deserve). He's not going to figure out you're feeling frosty because of the dishes, so tell him about the dishes.
Teach him how to get you in the mood. My definition of foreplay shifted once I became a parent. Like me, you might need to slowly transition from your role as mom to your role as sex kitten. Maybe you start with a massage. Maybe you start with a bath. Maybe you start with cuddling and talking about your day.
A few years ago, I was the sole family breadwinner, with a colicky baby. My husband's start-up business took nearly all his time but produced little income. To compensate, I let sex go. I let romance go. I let my marriage go.
"Parents often focus on their parenting role instead of on their partnering role, and we see the end result of that in our divorce statistics," says Dr. Love. "The number-one cause of growing apart is withdrawing your interest and your energy." Many parents, for instance, spell each other with child care. When he's with the kids, she gets a manicure. Or when she's with the kids, he's at the gym. Try these ways to connect emotionally and physically on a regular basis.
Get skin-on-skin contact. That means hugging, kissing, or touching. Make a habit of doing it before one of you leaves the house and whenever one of you comes home. Do it first thing in the morning and the last thing before sleep at night. I sit close to my husband on the couch. I pat his rear whenever I walk by and give him back rubs if I have a spare moment.
Date your spouse. You can, of course, hire a sitter and go out on a regular basis. But here's another tactic: Enforce an early bedtime. My daughter's old enough to stay up later than 8 p.m., but when she goes to bed early we get two hours of couple time (and uninterrupted sex time).
Start regular rituals. I share a cup of coffee with my husband most mornings. He often tucks me in on the nights he stays up later than I do. Once a week, I make him bacon for breakfast. These rituals are small ways for us to strengthen our bond.
If you stop settling for normal, you'll eventually find that your spouse is much more than a bedmate, your best friend, or the person whose sperm helped you create those little children. He'll be the one person in the world who knows you better than anyone -- and loves you anyway.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.