The biggest strain on a relationship isn't kids or lack of sex, or even the ubiquitous scapegoat called "no communication." It's everything balled up into one problem—lack of time.
The 45-to-54 age group has the country's highest percentage of divorces. To avoid joining their ranks, the best thing you can do in your 40s, if not sooner, is create daily or weekly rituals (independent of kids and other distractions) to ensure that you and your spouse spend some time together and focus on each other, not family logistics, says William Doherty. Ph.D., a professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota and the author of Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart. "Rituals may not be efficient," says Doherty, "but they force you to make a connection."
Plan time together
Keith S. was inches away from divorce. Too busy launching his own engineering company, he completely neglected his wife, Anne. Then he heard his minister mention in a sermon how he had established a weekly date night with his wife. So Keith booked a babysitter for every Wednesday night for an entire year. "It literally saved my marriage," says Keith. Ten years later, with no kids left in the house, he and Anne are still having Wednesday date night.
Here are some more ways to spend time together.
1Enter a mountain-bike race
Couples who play sports together reduce their stress and feel closer in their relationship, says Bonnie Eaker Well, Ph.D., a couples therapist in New York City and author of Make Up, Don't Break Up. The wilder the better: "The adrenaline rush will be channeled into your romance."
Pull out the photo album or home movies...those from way back, when you were at your youngest, supplest, and most attractive. "It turns you on to each other again," says Weil.
3Make your organ bigger
Your brain, that is. "Try gardening, taking a course, attending a lecture, or taking up a musical instrument together," suggests Well. You'll boost your compatibility as you share enthusiasm.
4Become a girlie man
Don't click away! Take a second look at some virtues normally associated with our mothers, sisters, and wives. It's a psychotruism that, as we age, women and men become more like each other. They get more assertive; we get more interested in relationships.
Work out the kinks
Before you file for divorce, consider some surprising news from the University of Chicago: In studies of 700 miserable, ready-to-split spouses, researchers found that two-thirds of those who stayed married were happy five years later. They toughed out some of the most difficult problems a couple can face, including alcoholism, infidelity, dire financial straits, and serious illness. Their strategy? A mix of stubborn commitment, a willingness to work together on issues, and a healthy lowering of expectations. The added benefit? They avoided the financial and emotional stresses of divorce, which can be significant whether you have children or not.
If you'd like to give your marriage a second chance, first identify the roots of your unhappiness, suggests researcher Linda Jo Waite, Ph.D., a sociologist at the university. Is there a serious problem such as infidelity or alcoholism? Boredom or emotional distance? Or outside stresses: A job, children's needs, or financial pressures? Then, use one of these tools for healing.
1Wait it out
With time, job situations improve, children get older and become less demanding, and you can develop a new perspective.
2Work on your marriage
See a marriage counselor, get advice from friends and books, and make time for fun together.
3Ask open-ended questions
"Why are you upset? I'm 10 minutes late." That lets her vent, which eventually calms her down. If you have a comeback for everything ("Listen, I'm only 10 minutes late"), that'll enrage her more.
4Give her subtle encouragement
Listen, and say "OK" and "yes" as she's talking. It's what tells her you're listening. That makes her more agreeable to your position. Once her anger is spent, you can address the real problem—calmly.
5Focus on your own happiness
Get social (join a book club, choir, or tennis league, or volunteer at the local food bank), or follow your personal bliss (take piano lessons, learn a craft, whatever!). Your marital problems may not go away, but having a source of personal joy allows you to build a happy life, no matter what.
Re-Create the Romance
The shortcut to a woman's devotion: surprises. Treat her to an out-of-the-blue gesture that pampers her. "The key is to do something that takes thought and effort and is just for her," says Sandor Gardos, Ph.D., a sexologist for mypleasure.com. "If she thinks you're just trying to get her into bed, your plan will backfire." Here are some sexy surprises that will make her feel like royalty.
Light a few candles, and fill a tub with hot water just before she gets home. Nothing says pampered like being bathed. Enhance the water with scented oils, either cucumber or banana and vanilla, says Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Escorting her to the tub and helping her undress might be enough to encourage dirty bathing thoughts.
Instead of your standard takeout, treat her to a bedroom picnic — complete with a blanket on the floor or spread over the bed. Open a bottle of wine (white or champagne is less of a stain hazard than red), and serve up some finger foods like sushi, dim sum, or just homemade English-muffin pizzas.
"Making dinner plays to a woman's heart because it's one less thing she has to deal with when she gets home," says Carolyn Bushong, a psychotherapist and author of Bring Back the Man You Fell in Love With.
3Make her bed
Yes, "high thread count" can be a sexy phrase. Be sure to pay attention to the color scheme in the bedroom, and pick up a new sheet set with a thread count of 300 or more in Turkish or Egyptian cotton. Then make the bed with the new stuff. You'll be pending much more time there now.
Before your next night out, do a little role reversal and pck out the clothes you can't wait to see her in—and out of—later. Tell her you remember how good she looked the last time she wore that dress/blouse/cutoff concert shirt (extra points if you can recall when that was). "It shows her that you pay attention to how she looks and take note when she looks especially sexy," says Linda De Villers, Ph.D., a sex therapist and author of Love Skills. "Most men aren't good at this, so it'll put you a step ahead of other guys."