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I will be the first to admit, I am not always very good at protecting or preparing for dates with Mark, often finding myself at loss for ideas or in a rut or too tired to “get ready to go out” at the end of a busy day. But before we head down the list of why it can be difficult to protect this time in marriage (babysitting, exhaustion, budget, etc), let me say what we all know: life is hard. It is rewarding and beautiful and life-giving, but the work and even circumstances can be very hard.

At some point in the early years of mothering, I realized that at the end of a day of holding, nursing, rocking, swaddling, snuggling children and babies, I had little need to be touched or to touch. At the end of a day of reading aloud, or listening to child chatter or sibling squabbles or having conversations all. day. long. with our children, I sometimes had little energy to begin yet another meaningful conversation with Mark, apart from a regurgitation of the day’s events. And as a mother trying to build a business, at the end of the day, there was always a separate TO DO list waiting for attention, a feeling of incompletion inside of me, making it difficult to simply stop and be with Mark. With fatherhood and career and maintaining different details in our home, he had his own set of exhaustion making it hard to protect this time for our marriage, too. I know everyone’s specific circumstances will vary, but this is just a glimpse at some of the factors that tug at intimacy in marriage.

So how do we care for one another within our marriages (sexually and emotionally) when we’re in the thick of busy, difficult circumstances? How do we keep our marital relationship from falling flat, from feeling like another thing on the TO DO, or from being merely a logistical partnership? The answer can be complex, but I know it begins with regular date nights, or protected time for one another. Logistical connection is not the same as relational connection. Here are just a few ways to practically safeguard time together, regardless of what tugs you away from it.

HOW TO PRIORITIZE DATE NIGHTS IN MARRIAGE

Por qué no? / Why not? Pause for a moment and consider what may be specifically tugging at your martial intimacy right now. Of course, I mean sex, but I also mean emotional intimacy, too––time alone together. Don’t over analyze it. Just narrow down what factors may be working against you, so you know how to prepare in spite of them.

Keep it Simple / I know, such a cliché. But the goal is to create a habit of time together, and the only way that happens is with realistic, regular follow-through. What’s your style? What is fun for you right now (because that may change in different stages of marriage)? Don’t undermine the power of having a drink together on the porch or going for a drive out of town to eat just to have more car-time talks without kids.

Make Space in Your Budget / If you don’t have space in your monthly home budget for date nights––do it! Live within your means, but mark guilt-free money to use on time together. It pays enormous dividends. If you only have $50 available for the month, figure out the best way to use it (i.e. one dinner out with a friend to babysit, or a weekly bottle of wine together at home). You get the idea.

Alternate Going Out with Staying at Home / Mark and I have always enjoyed being home, especially in the years where our children went to bed before 7:00. So instead of committing to a weekly babysitter, we alternated weeks of staying home and going out, sometimes only going out once in a month. If you’re hiring a babysitter, it adds up quickly, so we were often able to do something that felt like more of a splurge on the nights we went out.

Freshen Up Beforehand / This is especially important for date nights at home. Mark and I have so much empathy/compassion for one another’s work. That said, changing out of the clothes we both wore all day, adding a bit of lipstick or under-eye concealer to a tired face, or even brushing our teeth or popping into a quick shower helps prepare us for a shift in roles, to put aside the the other roles for this one. It is a way we can help turn a simple glass of wine on the sofa together into focused intimacy––even if we had to stuff the unfolded clothes on the sofa into a basket and move it to the other room. Clearly, I speak from experience. Wink. Freshening up even in the smallest way helps us both let go of the day and relax into one another.

Think of One Question / Conversation can easily slide into talk about the kids or work or about some logistical solution our home needs. Sexy, right? Wrong. Those necessary conversations are practical, helpful, and foundational for building a home, but my advice (based on experience), leave it for another time. Hashing out the days’ events (especially the really hard ones) is not inspirational or sexy for either of us. Date nights, whether enjoyed at home or out and about, should be a respite from the logistics, a place of connection where you remember your relationship apart from the logistical juggle of parenthood or work or whatever other life circumstance. To avoid devolving into the parenting/work/other people’s lives conversation, have a question or two on hand ahead of time, ideally something open-ended to lead into more conversation. Some we use: What have you been dreaming about/hoping for this week? I know [insert hard circumstances] has been difficult this week, how are you doing? If you could transport us to any place right now, what would you where would we be? What would we do? 

Add Something Unexpected / Marriage can become so familiar, so comfortable that we can sometimes lose interest in one another. If your date nights feel the same as every other night (i.e. sit on the sofa with a favorite drink and watch a movie/show), it’s time to change it up! Add a surprise element––maybe something sexy, maybe something tasty, maybe an overnight date, maybe a morning date. Be creative.

Disclaimer / If your marriage is in crisis ( a good sign is not wanting to spend time together for whatever reason), I highly recommend digging into that a bit more with a trustworthy counselor. Counseling tends to have a stigma in our culture, a mark of failure or insufficiency, but in my opinion every marriage needs counseling at various points. Every marriage, even the healthiest of them, endures hard things, and counseling (for the individual or couple) can be an important to help process how we continue to grow in a healthy way regardless.

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As parents, Mark and I have learned to be creative about our “dates.” Every other week we have a legitimate night-out to ourselves, but between those evenings, we squeeze whatever random moments we can. Fortunately, we’re both pretty simple people, both of us more often enjoying casual intimacy over fancy, crowded restaurants. So when my sister offered to take my kids to the movies on Saturday morning in exchange for watching her daughter (who would mostly be napping), I took the opportunity to create a little impromptu lunch date for us. I roasted cherry tomatoes and asparagus, pulled out a little brie, a baguette, and a bottle of wine (midday? gasp.).

Typically, I’d take a blanket outside, but since our weather has been cold and damp still, I opted for an indoor picnic instead. Using one of our throw blankets, I spread our small feast across our bedroom floor–the perfect casual, romantic lunch. It was brief compared to a typical evening date but such an ideal way to spend together and connect.

This Valentine’s Day will be particularly special for me and Mark since we’ll be closing on OUR NEW HOME. Crazy, right? It’s a cozy 1930’s craftsman needing a lot of attention and love, but we’re so grateful for this gift. The best Valentine’s Day gift really. We’ll be celebrating by having another indoor picnic (by candlelight) in our empty place, just the two of us. I’m pretty excited. What are your plans for this weekend? Remember, simple can be just as romantic (even if you pick up dinner).

Coyote Handle Board was gifted from Given Goods, a fair-trade business supporting artisans in developing countries. All thoughts and images are my own.