You're not neglecting your kids if you put your marriage first. "It's a myth that the more attention we give our kids, the better they'll turn out," says David Code, family coach and author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First. "We seem to be marrying our kids instead of our spouses because we find it easier to be with our kids than our partners," Code says. But putting your spouse first will create a trio of positive outcomes — your marriage will improve, your children won't suffer from over-parenting and your kids will learn positive relationship skills.
The power of romance
"One Valentine's Day, I bought an unusual jar and hand-painted it," says Charles Orlando, author of The Problem with Women... is Men. He spent two weeks writing "1,000 reasons why I love her" on slips of paper. "That jar sits on our mantle. She regards it as the best gift she's ever received." For couples whose daily grind leaves them feeling anything but romantic, a simple gesture like this puts a spark back in daily life.
"Put reminders in your personal calendar to periodically surprise your spouse with small gifts or activities to let them know you're thinking of them," say Paul and Debbie Lamb, authors of Be a Better Partner: A Handbook for Couples. But remember, just because you'd appreciate a certain gesture, that doesn't mean your spouse would want the same. "Know what your partner really likes and do something he or she thinks is special," says psychotherapist Eddie Reece. Sometimes we forget the small gestures toward our spouse, which at times can outweigh the grand gestures.
Or a sunny day. Or a rainy day. "Play butler, maid or servant to your partner," suggests Reece. "Take care of items on their to-do list while they have breakfast in bed. If there is a chore that is traditionally theirs, do that for them." Rather than do the same old thing around the house each Saturday, plan a break for your partner. Nothing puts you in a better mood than having someone special tend to your needs.
Value rituals… and spontaneity
Do something unexpected
"Show up at your significant other's workplace for lunch. Give a full-body massage after the kids go to sleep. Write a note on a Post-It and leave it on the mirror," suggests Orlando. "Get out of the sweats and wear something sexy," says Dana Hilmer, author of Blindsided by a Diaper and founder of LifestyleMom. "Surprise each other once in a while." Routines can become such a chore, and aren't a big precursor to romance.
Maintain a family calendar
"Make sure your obligations are organized and in sync with each other," says Michael Batshaw, psychotherapist and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged. "A couple with new additions needs to set aside family time, alone time and couple time. This creates boundaries as well as a sense of unity." Now that you have a family, much of your time will be devoted to your children — but make couple time a priority too.
Actually schedule some time together
"You schedule everything else that's important, why not time for your beloved?" says Reece. "Time alone together was vital when you were dating. It's just as vital now that you're married." If you aren't comfortable leaving your children with a babysitter, consider trading babysitting with a friend who may also be craving some couple time.
Make sex a priority
"My female clients often view sex as, 'Yet another thing I have to do for someone else,'" says Elizabeth Lombardo, psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. "Sex is for both of you. It is a great way to reduce stress, feel closer to each other and even get a good night's sleep (which we all need)." Remember, love takes effort and a little closeness to make it continue to grow — but it's not work. "Work is that thing you do to earn cash," says Orlando. "Effort is what you put in to the things that hold your passion."
Create intimate moments
"Intimacy is the art of making your partner feel understood and accepted," says Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "When this feeling is created, barriers fall." A gentle touch, eye contact or a quick hug can create an intimate, loving atmosphere in an instant — especially when times are hard. "This is when a couple needs private connection the most," says Batshaw. "Even if you're not in the mood, make an effort to share intimate moments a few times a week." Making eye contact across the table while the toddler is throwing food may not seem romantic, but it's a little gesture that connects you.
Orlando says, "Date night is a good attempt at rekindling things. But after working all week, diapers and homework assistance, it might not be feasible to downshift over the course of a couple of hours at dinner. Better to get a trusted sitter and take a full night to find passion." The thrill of being away from home — even just a few miles — can light a spark you had temporarily forgotten about.
Never stop courting each other
"Write notes, send texts, cook together, compliment each other — do the things you did before kids," says life coach Erin Baebler of Magnolia Workshop. "Seduce each other. Make a fuss over your partner the way you used to," says Reece. While there is something to be said for being comfortable in your relationship at this point, flirting with your spouse may add that little spark back to your marriage. Run your fingers through his hair while he's brushing his teeth or steal a kiss in the kitchen. It's all about continuing that love affair that brought you together in the first place.
Up next: More ways to jump-start your marriage after kids