Secrets of a healthy marriage—with kids!

Put each other first (yes, before the kids)
When it comes to building a healthy (and sexy!) marriage when you're not only husband-and-wife but mom-and-dad, too—what should come first? Your spouse or your kids? Relationship expert Charles J. Orlando, author of The Problem with Women... is Men says it's your hubby! “It’s not that the kids matter ‘less’,” Orlando says. “It’s that the marriage is the backbone of the house and everyone needs to see it and feel it.” Orlando’s suggestion: Make a beeline for your spouse the minute you walk in the door, and give him a big, fat kiss. It will make your partner feel special (and—bonus—your kids will feel secure).

Don't tell dad how to spend time with the kids
Moms and dads have very different roles in a child’s life. In most cases Mom is the nurturer, the vegetable-pusher, the kisser-of-skinned-knees. Dad is the Fun One, the dude who lets them eat brownies for breakfast when you’re out of town (“It won’t kill them!”). Even though your methods are clearly superior (and safer), there’s no better way of saying “I trust and respect you” than biting your tongue and letting your hubby do it his way.

Just say yes
Research shows that the frequency with which you respond to requests in a positive manner is directly related to how happy and satisfying your relationships will be. Pay attention to how often you say things like, ‘Yes, that makes sense, tell me more,” or “You’re starting to convince me,” says Christine Carter PhD, sociologist, author and creator of the Raising Happiness online parenting classes. “Finding opportunities to say yes in a multitude of ways is a very controllable way to positively impact your marriage,” Carter adds.

Present a united front
“Being your partner’s biggest fan is one of the key predictors of a great relationship,” Carter says. A fan doesn’t undermine your every decision or declaration, but backs it up with enthusiastic support. When your kids try to play the “But daddy said we could do it” card, resist the urge to fire back with “Well mommy says you can’t.” (This will admittedly require an excess of restraint.) A consistent show of solidarity also lets your kids know that together, mom and dad are a force to be reckoned with.

Exercise!
Being active keeps you healthy and models positive behavior for your kids. Plus “working out produces endorphins that make you happy, and happy people don’t kill their husbands,” says one practical married mom we know. Even if you don’t have time for daily doubles matches or trots on the treadmill (and um, who does?), a family bike ride or after-dinner stroll will give all of you a bonding, feel-good boost.

Make sex a priority (again)
“Sex makes babies, so it’s ironic that children often threaten the very romance that brought that child into being,” says Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and the author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic. It’s never hard to find a reason not to do it, but sex really is the glue that holds a marriage together. So lock the bedroom door and get busy.

Choose your battles
If you go ballistic when he packs the wrong sandwich for your son’s lunch or misses the deadline to sign your daughter up for soccer, what’s left in your arsenal when he really screws up? Similarly, if you’re ready to take it to the mat over which children’s toothpaste is indeed best, you won’t have the energy to fight the bigger battles to come (think cell phones, homework, dating and curfews, to name but a few). Another argument for zipping your lip: If you’re always hovering nearby ready to ream your husband for every little blunder, he may stop making an effort altogether, says Mama Bird Diaries blogger Kelcey Kintner. Ask yourself “Will this matter in five minutes/weeks/years?” If the answer is “not really,” take a deep breath and let it go.

Accept that not all problems are solvable
A lot of your fights are probably based on fundamental personality differences when it comes to parenting (he’s a free-range dad, you’re a helicopter mom) and will likely come up again and again in different contexts. Consciously recognizing this leads to what Carter calls an upward spiral: When you accept that there are certain things about your partner that will never change, there’s no need to try to convince him that you’re right (and that subsequently, he’s wrong), she explains. Instead, you can focus on the commonalities—like the fact that you both care deeply and passionately about your kids. “Even if you’re at polar-opposite sides of an issue, that shared interest makes it not a deal-breaker for the marriage,” Carter adds.

Remember, you were "Man and Wife" before "Mom and Dad"
Before you have kids, having fun is pretty much your job as a couple. After the stork makes a visit, co-parenting becomes your single, most important collaboration. (Did you schedule her dentist appointment? Should he see a speech therapist? Don’t forget her recital is on Saturday!) That’s natural— but it also means you have to work a little harder to maintain your connection as a couple. “Research shows that having an activity that you can do together predicts intimacy in a relationship,” Carter says. Take up tennis, go bowling, have a picnic, go for a hike, put down your damned iPhone/Blackberry/Droid and just have an actual conversation. (We shouldn’t have to say it, but we will: Watching TV together doesn’t count as an “activity,” unless it’s porn and watching it is foreplay.) Someday the kids will be grown and gone, and you’ll be glad you’re married to a guy you know how to have fun with.

Flirt in front of your kids
We’re not suggesting you stage a make-out sesh at the dinner table, but it’s perfectly fine for your offspring to witness the frequent kiss, hug or playful smack on the bum. Such sexy gestures don’t just help keep the romance alive, they also show your kids that marriage isn’t all bills, bickering and responsibility, points out Orlando. (Note: You can flirt mercilessly until your oldest is about thirteen, after which the rousing chorus of “Ewwwww, mom and dad you are so totally disgusting” will probably make you want to save your smooches for behind closed doors.)

Don't call it "babysitting" when your hubby has the kids
Doing so will make you enormously bitter—and it also suggests that he can turn down a job on a whim. (He can’t.) In fact, you might want to be extremely careful about how you negotiate your hall passes altogether. We suggest: “I’m going out with my girlfriends this week. Would Wednesday or Thursday night work better for you?” (And when you do leave him in charge, try not to pre-cook all of the meals and spit-shine all of the kids and generally make life easy for him. The only way he can appreciate everything you do is if he occasionally does it himself.)

Picture him as your handsome groom
He’s a dad now, but he was your husband first—and at one time, you were madly, passionately, head-over-heels for him. Have you told him as much lately? Research shows that happy couples exchange at least five pleasantries for every negative comment, says Carter. The higher that ratio goes, the happier they are (and vice versa). “It tends to snowball in either direction,” Carter adds. “Once couples fall below a certain level, it’s hard to recover.” Fuel those positive flames by listing—daily—at least five qualities you find attractive or admirable in your mate. (Carter insists that brain scans of folks who have been married for decades and who do this look identical to those of lustful young lovers.)

Put your wallet away
According to Perel, the crucial part about date night isn’t where you go or what you do—it’s who pays the sitter at the end of the night. Think about it: What on earth could make mom feel less sexy and kill the date-night mojo faster than a lively discussion of bodily functions and finances with the hired help? Perel’s advice: When you get home, head straight to the bedroom to change into something sexy and light a candle, and let him take care of the practical matters. Your only concern is keeping the date-night magic alive.

Show him where the vacuum lives (and how to use it)
There’s a clear and consistent parallel between family size and the mess-level of any home. There’s also a clear and consistent parallel between how couples feel about housework and sex, explains Carter. “When the wife in particular is satisfied with the division of labor, they have sex considerably more often.” The split doesn’t have to be 50/50 or even anything close to that, as long as the lady is okay with the arrangement. “You know that whole Porn for Women thing?” Carter asks. “This just goes to show you that housework really is legitimate foreplay for women.”

Have your own life
Family and couple-time are both fabulous, but it’s also important not to give up the things that make you happy and whole on your own. “There is definitive research that shows that emotions are contagious,” says Carter. “When one person works to improve their emotional well-being, it can have a profound effect on the whole family.” Your selfless assignment: Take up tennis again, go out with your girlfriends, schedule a spa day for yourself. Remember, when mama’s happy, everyone’s happy.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.

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