Harried marrieds

Today's long work hours and hectic schedules can interfere with relationships - unless couples take charge.

Like ships passing in the night. That's the way Mira Kirshenbaum describes the increasingly distant relationship she and her husband developed after years of balancing child-rearing and demanding careers. "We were so busy we couldn't connect," she says. "We just didn't have the feelings of love we used to."

It's a familiar lament in a time-short culture. Of the 110 million married people in the United States, about 85 percent are living what Ms. Kirshenbaum calls "the weekend marriage." With only scattered moments to share on weekdays, these "harried marrieds" hope to carve out time together on Saturday and Sunday. But even that is often a tenuous dream. There are always errands to run, children to chauffeur, houses to clean, bills to pay.

The results are sobering. "The weekend marriage is now the most important and least understood reason why couples end up getting divorced," says Kirshenbaum, a couples therapist in Boston. "Neglect is how you kill a relationship. How do you solve problems that come up between you if there's no time to talk?"

Parents exacerbate those time deficits, she finds, by making too many unnecessary sacrifices for their children, whose lives are often overscheduled. She urges adults to consider their own well-being, too.

That was the reasoning behind Nancy and Michael Twigg's decision to spend an hour together each morning after their daughter goes to preschool. They work from home, she as a writer and speaker, he as an engineering consultant.

"We were getting to a point where we were not having harmony in our marriage," says Mrs. Twigg, of Knoxville, Tenn. So they set priorities. "It's a matter of figuring out how to draw the line," she says. "We've got to have family time, work time, and couple time."

Their activities vary during their hour together. "Sometimes we go out for bagels and coffee, sometimes we just stay home and do chores together," says Twigg. "Sometimes we talk over any issues that need to be resolved."

After 10 years of marriage, Roger Darnell and his wife, Beth, of Boone, N.C., found that everything changed with the births of their children, now ages 4 and 18 months. "Whenever we try to have the simplest conversation to catch up at the end of a day, the din of our kids quickly escalates until we have no choice but to turn our attentions to them," he says.

The Darnells' coping mechanisms include making time for conversation every evening after the children are in bed. They also go out for a weekly "date night."

Marty Friedman, who writes and speaks on marriage and relationships, sees men and women taking different approaches to the problem.

"Men tend to think that their marriages will run on automatic," he says. "Increasingly, men want to be involved and caring fathers, so their parent time is very important to them in the evenings and weekends. I often see men who are in a 'parenthood' but not in a fulfilling marriage. A healthy, loving marriage is more important to children than anything else."

Couples should agree not to talk about the children when they go out, or to keep it to 10 minutes for the evening, suggests Mr. Friedman, author of "Straight Talk for Men About Marriage." He encourages them to limit children's organized activities and to get away with their wives for at least a day every three months.

Polly Franks, a child advocate in Richmond, Va., faced a moment of truth when her husband saw her making out her daily list of things to do. "He asked me to put him on the list," she says.

Now they shop for groceries together as one way of carving out moments as a couple. They also set aside several hours for a dinner out, even if only once a month, so they have uninterrupted time to talk.

Planning ahead for the empty nest

Ms. Franks emphasizes the importance of together timefor the long run. "The kids grow up and they leave, and then where are you if the marriage is gutted out?"

For Kirshenbaum and her husband, Charles Foster, the solution began with the realization that even one good connection a day matters, she says. This may be gestures as basic as a smile, a hug, or a kiss.

A listening ear helps, too. "Listening is one of the first things that goes when you don't have time," she finds.

The pair began discussing problems by e-mail to save their limited "couple time" for happier subjects. They competed to make good things happen in their relationship every day. They also cut out activities that weren't essential. Then they set aside two hours each week for themselves.

"Once we booked it, it was inviolable," says Kirshenbaum, who has turned her research into "The Weekend Marriage: Abundant Love in a Time-Starved World."

Even retired couples, who supposedly have an abundance of leisure, can face challenges. "If they haven't taken care of their love when they were working, then it is very difficult when they're retired," Kirshenbaum says. "Now they have the time, but where's the love?"

In some cases, even the free time vanishes. The current mantra of retirement - "Keep busy!" - has its rewards. But it can also separate couples, if each partner is racing off to individual activities, leaving little time together.

"It's great if seniors can be active," Franks says. "But I've seen so many of them who are in so many clubs and different things that couples can get torn."

Similarly, in remarriages, husbands and wives may each spend time with their respective children and grandchildren. "Loyalties get divided," Franks observes. "Quite often they pull apart as opposed to pulling together. They don't have to do everything together. But if you can find a few things you have in common and make time for them, a little bit can make a world of difference."

In Cleveland, Susanne Alexander, an author, and her husband of eight years, Craig Farnsworth, who works in technical sales, take another approach. Every morning they "stay bonded" by spending a few minutes praying together. They also agree on a positive quality to practice for the day. "This could be patience, kindness, peacefulness, thoughtfulness, or whatever seems to fit our needs that day," Ms. Alexander says.

Even couples without children do not escape the time crunch. Lotty and Walter Young of Kennesaw, Ga., found one solution to the challenge of too little time with each other: commuting together. Initially they drove separately. Then, drawn by financial incentives from Georgia's Clean Air Campaign, they began taking one car. Now, as they inch along Highway 41, they gain an hour of conversation a day.

Weekday talks free up weekends

"It definitely has helped to have extra time to talk," says Mr. Young. "We get most of the career and work stuff out of the way while we're in the car. When we're home, we can deal with home issues." That leaves more time on weekends for relaxation and for what he describes as their "minihobby" - helping relatives with household projects.

Because both of the Youngs had divorced parents, they feel that it's important to nurture their relationship as well as their careers. "Work tends to just pull you in sometimes," he says. "You have to step back and say, wait a minute, we need to take some personal time."

It's an approach Kirshenbaum advocates, too. Because of fear, she says, many families regard economic advancement as the most important priority. But, she asks, "what good is making more money if ... you lose your love in the process? Valuing love, I really think it's holy."

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