As a marriage and family counselor, Mary Sotile sees growing evidence of what she calls a "super-couple syndrome." She describes it as an "unrealistic striving" to juggle many roles - careers, families, community activities - by hard-working partners who "want to do everything and maintain a competitive edge everywhere." Even couples with one high-powered wage-earner and an at-home spouse can fit the profile.
"It's how most of us live these days, with basically just too much going on," says Mrs. Sotile, of Winston-Salem, N.C. Trying to accomplish too much, she warns, risks harming a couple's relationship. "The very thing that's most important, we end up messing up."
As Valentine's Day approaches, Sotile and other marriage experts see the hearts-and-flowers celebration as a reminder to preserve - or revive - love and affection in the midst of responsibilities and distractions. They make a persuasive case for finding ways to balance roles as partners and parents, not only for the couple's benefit, but also to help their children.
"I cannot emphasize enough that children are tremendously affected by the atmosphere in the house," says Ellen Wachtel, author of "We Love Each Other, But..." She adds, "Parents need to think about the quality of their marriage. The children will be happier if you are happier."
To nurture a marriage and increase happiness, counselors say, couples must set aside time to be together. Many guilt-ridden parents compensate for long hours at work by focusing exclusively on their children when they get home. In the process, they neglect their marriage.
The 24-hour global economy also threatens marital stability. For couples with children, the risk of divorce is six times greater when one parent works a late-night shift, according to new research by Harriet Presser, a sociologist at the University of Maryland.
Even 15 minutes a day of "grown-up time" can make a difference. Dr. Wachtel advises parents to establish a routine in which children understand that for a brief period, parents will be off-limits.
"You try to put a fence around that time and make it like a minidate," she says. "It's saying, 'We're not just parents, we're a couple." Avoid talking about the children, the house, budgets, or schedules.
Judith Siegel, author of "What Children Learn From Their Parents' Marriage," refutes the notion that such time is selfish. "When children see parents making the time to enjoy each other, they learn important lessons about what marriage is." Rather than feeling guilty, parents can reassure themselves that children will grow up "expecting to find someone in their own lives they want to spend time with."
When Wachtel's children were young, she and her husband would mark an X on the calendar to say, "We're not going out with anybody, we're not doing chores." Sometimes they would rent a movie, other times enjoy a late dinner.
Couples also need regular outings away from children, beepers, telephones, and computers. Failing to preserve an evening out or to say, "Let's meet for lunch," can lead to disenchantment, Siegel observes.
Some churches now offer a "couples' night out" by providing free baby-sitting monthly or biweekly. Although men initially tend to be the "draggees" and women the "draggers," husbands soon enjoy the evenings, according to David Arp, co-author, with his wife, Claudia, of "Ten Great Dates to Revitalize Your Marriage."
The Arps tell parents that "their children will wait while the parents grab some time for the marriage, but their marriage is not going to wait until their children grow up."
After children leave home, couples face other challenges. Mr. Arp quotes an empty-nest wife as saying, "The problem now is, not only do we have time to start a conversation, we have time to finish our argument." And a husband once told him, "We sit down at a table meant for five or six, but now it's just the two of us, and we have nothing to say."
The Arps, who have been married 33 years, view this as a chance for couples to "reinvent" their marriage. The first half of marriage, they note, tends to be a time of reacting to circumstances, rearing children, and building careers. Later, couples can build a closer relationship. "You're more in control," Mr. Arp says.
Whatever a couple's situation, building a stronger marriage involves developing ways to interact positively. That, counselors say, takes no more time than interacting negatively.
"Every time you notice the things you like about your partner, you draw your partner closer," Wachtel says. One person might respond to being told she is a good mother. Another might enjoy having a spouse bring home a favorite ice cream. These small, tender gestures, counselors say, provide more lasting benefits than getting away for a weekend.
Even pausing for 30 seconds to express appreciation or to ask about the other spouse creates what Sotile calls a "milieu of connection."
Experts warn against the mistaken idea that intimacy means saying anything, however hurtful. "Over time, people become critics," says Wachtel. "Criticism erodes love. It's just absolutely not the way to get people to behave differently."
She urges people to be realists. Instead of saying, "OK, now I'm married forever, I don't have to be enticing anymore," they need to realize that "relationships fall apart, and we have to keep them strong."
Whatever challenges couples face, the Arps encourage forgiveness. "People need to let go of past marital disappointments and just accept each other as a package deal," Mrs. Arp says.
"They need to make a commitment that they do want to face the future together."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society