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updated 5/10/2006 12:39:40 PM ET 2006-05-10T16:39:40

For Melissa Mothershed, a mother of two who's been married for 12 years to a man who travels frequently for work, booking a date to have sex with him is the only way to guarantee intimacy.

“We take the kids to grandpa’s house once a month and have a night together,” says Mothershed, 34, who lives in Seattle.

"I think if you don’t put effort into your relationship, you’re in trouble," she says. "And, for us, the anticipation is great and makes the night worth waiting for.”

Enter scheduled sex, another appointment to put in your Palm Pilot. And one that appears to be growing in popularity. The new Elle/MSNBC.com Sex and Love Survey found that half of respondents make regular date nights.

While couples may fear that once you start penciling in a roll in the hay you’ll lose any feelings of spontaneity and fun, both experts and couples in long-term relationships tend to emphasize the positives that can result from a hot night planned either weekly or monthly.

The good news: Scheduled sex isn’t as boring as it sounds.

“Because couples’ lives are so intensely busy, it’s good to schedule sex,” says Jane Greer, a psychotherapist in New York City. “If you don’t make the time to flirt and plan in the time to sexually connect, it just won’t happen. People tend to collapse under the burden of responsibility and push aside sex.”

Think of it as foreplay
Proponents of scheduled sex think it’s one of the best things you can do to stay connected because it gets couples to talk more about what they want from their partner and it helps strengthen that all-crucial sexual bond.

In addition, counting down the days until you have sex can serve as a unique kind of foreplay. “Flirting and planning a sex night can actually end up turning you on and exciting you,” Greer says. “As you anticipate being together, it’s a great energy booster, kind of like a jumper cable starting up a rundown engine.”

If it works for you, pinpointing a day or night when you can focus on being intimate will help transport you back to those elation-filled first dates with your partner, says Lori Buckley, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Pasadena, Calif.

“You want to think back to the beginning of your relationship,” she says. “Back then, you planned exactly what you were going to do together on your date and, once you started having sex, you probably spent a lot of time thinking about what outfit to wear, what perfume to spritz to turn him on. Now that you’re a couple, fantasizing about your night can add excitement if you think about it this way — not that you’re too tired to have sex.”

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Phyllis Hill, 43, a marriage/sex trainer in Nashville, Tenn., has been having regular "sex date nights" about once a week with her husband, Glenn, also a marriage/sex trainer, for more than half of the 23 years they’ve been married.

“Many people think of a date night as dinner and a movie,” says Hill, who has four children, ages 10, 16, 19 and 22. “Couples often spend money they don't have and get home late, too tired for anything but quickie sex. Our idea is send the kids to a friend’s house for the evening and have dinner at home with sex as the main menu.”

The result: Hill says her marriage is hot, fueled by these sex dates, which are specifically meant to add a little "extended playtime for exploration and experimentation" to their relationship.

“There is a terribly distorted view of what sex in marriage should or should not be,” she says. “When the goal of a couple’s sexual interaction is to bond them together, it becomes the glue and electricity which makes the relationship special and dynamic.”

For others, scheduled sex is just the best way to ensure sex happens — at all. Patricia Johnson, co-author of "The Essence of Tantric Sexuality," a book that will be published in July, is a Tantra teacher as well as a professional opera singer who frequently tours.

“As a result of my tour schedule, my partner and I often find that sex is less likely to happen if we don't plan for it,” she says. “Also, we both work at home most of the time, and if we don't set aside time during the day to make love, the demands of work and other distractions are likely to interfere, and we miss the opportunity.”

Johnson has discovered another win-win: The more sex she has, the more she wants it. “Scheduling sex both increases my desire and opens up the possibility for more frequent spontaneous encounters,” she says.

Spontaneity still a worthy goal
In the end, like a lot of things, your sex life is often complex to manage. And even the biggest fans of scheduled sex will likely concede that it should be seen as a treat. “If you get to the point where the only sex you’re having is scheduled, then things are out of balance and you run the risk of losing spontaneity altogether,” Johnson says.

You need to have both casual, unplanned-for sex and sex that’s a red-letter occasion, agrees Mothershed.

“Scheduling sex is great, especially if you’re in a long-term relationship and you have 18,000 things going on,” she says.

But beware of asking for the inevitable raincheck.

“There are always going to be times when you need to reschedule,” Mothershed says, “and the last thing you want to do is have your partner think that sex is lower down on your priority list.”

Lambeth Hochwald is a freelance journalist in New York City who writes regularly for Marie Claire, Redbook and Woman's Day.

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