If it's Tuesday, it must be tee-ball. My wife, Lauren, feeds the kids, packs the van and heads to the park. I drive there straight from work. We dine on peanut butter sandwiches and watch our 7-year-old son daydream in the outfield.
Game's over. No one knows, or cares, who won. By the time we pull both cars into the driveway, the kids are ready for a snack. Then it's baths for each one and a story before being tucked into bed. Ah, quiet.
Maybe not. Five minutes later, the kids are up again. Ben forgot to go to the bathroom. Zack wants a drink of water. Lindsey can't find her Olympic Gymnast Barbie. Problems are solved. Kids are tucked back in.
I take a quick glimpse at the day's mail. Lauren does a few dishes and makes tomorrow's lunches. The kids yell at each other, then at us. "Mom, Zack called me a dummy!"
We glance at the clock. 10:15. Forget about any daytime thoughts of nighttime romance. Maybe tomorrow night. Maybe in 15 years when the kids move out. We stagger upstairs and fall into bed. Wait! Forgot to close the garage door.
And it's not just us. This scenario, or one very close to it, is played out in the homes of most of our friends. While activities change with the seasons, one thing stays the same: There's never enough time. The question isn't "Where did the day go?" but "Where did our life go?"
Packed schedules, work stress and everyday family conflicts leave couples with little time to nurture the relationship they committed to on their wedding day. Experts talk about the need for a husband and wife to "connect" each day—to look each other in the eye and talk about meaningful things. But many are the days when the only connecting we notice is that we both go home to the same house. Meaningful conversation? Does "Goodnight, Honey. Sorry I'm so tired" count?
The situation may seem bleak, but it's not hopeless.
Rewiring the Connection
"A lot of couples genuinely want to connect, but they lack the skills they need rather than the time," says Ingrid Lawrenz, a counselor for New Life Resources in the Milwaukee area. "When they do try, they feel like they've argued instead of connected."
Boy, is that ever true. For years, Lauren and I rarely talked about truly important things—our spiritual lives or a personal struggle we were facing. When we did try to connect, invariably she'd end up in tears and I'd end up frustrated and feeling guilty. Our failure to connect was a problem of avoidance, not time constraints—though that made a convenient excuse.
For couples in situations like ours, Lawrenz suggests a change in focus. "I often hear couples say, 'We need to spend time on our marriage,' as if their marriage were a role or an institution." Instead, she recommends, think of your marriage as investing time in a person—becoming a student of your spouse.
Lawrenz suggests this starting point: Set aside 20 minutes a day, ten for each spouse. Use a timer and alternate who gets to talk first. Then discuss what's going on in your life: your struggles, concerns, victories. Your spouse can't interrupt during your talk time. But at the end of the ten minutes he or she can ask a single clarifying question, such as "Honey, I understand how you ran over the cat with the lawn mower. But why were you mowing the patio?" Reverse roles for the next ten minutes. Then, use what you learned to pray about specific struggles and needs that your spouse shared with you.
Get a Grip on Reality
But being able to focus on your marriage isn't always a question of not having the necessary skills. Sometimes couples want to connect and the problem is time—or rather, their attitude toward time.
Rand and Mariene Oman, a husband-wife marriage counseling team in northern Illinois, see couples wrestling with time-related stress every day. Sometimes, Mariene says, the frustrations stem from a person's unrealistic expectations.
"We've been taught the ideal Christian should have devotions every day and pray with their spouse every day," she says. And when they fail to live up to that ideal, she adds, couples feel loaded down with guilt.
"Couples need to be realistic," she says. "They have to ask themselves, 'What can we do? What can we control?' and go from there."
Okay, I buy her advice. But how can you carve out time when there seems to be none available? According to the experts, you start small and keep it simple.
"Look at your week's events and find out where your spaces are," Mariene advises. "Then start by saying, 'Let's have breakfast together on Saturday, and let's talk after the kids go to bed on Thursday night.'"
Maybe this sounds a little too much like a business arrangement—with you and your mate pulling out daily planners and penciling each other into your schedules. Shouldn't moments to connect happen more naturally?
Well, maybe. But the moments won't happen unless you begin building good habits and forcing yourselves to do something you know is good for you. In our case, cable TV was the time-gobbling culprit. Once the kids were in bed, rather than talk we'd flip to HBO and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger inflict carnage for the 14th time that month. And I don't even like Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. We were allowing TV to steal what time we did have. And in the process we were compromising our beliefs by watching that garbage.
The solution was obvious—cancel HBO. But the cable movie offender lingered in our home simply because we weren't willing to take action. Once we decided to take control of the time we did have available, we both felt stupid for waiting so long to get started.
Forced Time Out
Jeff and Sue Blevins, a couple with two kids and a calendar as full as anybody's, found a way to keep their marriage a priority. It boils down to knowing the value of a—dare I say it—regular date night.
"Friday night is sacred," Sue says. "That's the only time we have alone." Most of their dates are simple and inexpensive—taking a walk or going out for coffee. The only criteria: They're alone together and can talk without distractions.
The Blevinses know that finding time for each other is more a matter of attitude than of expertise in time management. The reason Jeff and Sue never miss a Friday night together is, quite simply, because they don't want to. No matter how frazzled they become, they know that on Friday they'll have a forced time-out. Looking ahead to their scheduled chance to regroup and focus on what's important helps relieve the stress they feel during the week.
"We've made our Friday-night dates part of the fabric of our life," explains Jeff. "If we said, 'When we get time we'll go out,' months would pass without a meaningful conversation."
Time for God
Another often-overlooked factor in the time-crunch equation is personal time with God. Over the long term, counselors report, a couple's failure to connect with God leads to a failure in connecting with each other. And like making time for your spouse, making time for God is more a matter of attitude than it is an overcrowded schedule.
"If you're spending time with God or your spouse out of a sense of guilt, you won't be very motivated," says Mariene Oman. "However, if you do it because you want to do it, that's different. And if you know what it feels like when you don't make that time, you're more than likely going to make time with God a priority."
The Blevinses can attest to that. "If I find myself getting really frustrated, a lot of times it has to do with the fact that I've been rushing my time with God or haven't been having it at all," Jeff says. "You've just got to rebel against the flow of your schedule and pull yourself out."
The Blevinses give each other room for that personal time. Sue's favorite spot for solitude is the bath tub; Jeff's duty is to run interference to keep their two kids occupied. Or Jeff will watch the kids while Sue goes to a coffee shop for an hour with her Bible and journal.
If there's one conclusion to draw about the time-related stress we all face, it's that the right attitude will make the difference we've been looking for. Deadlines, outside demands, interruptions and busyness will never stop. So our only recourse is to do what Jeff did: "Say, 'this is what I'm going to do', and then do it."
But it's not all a grit-your-teeth duty.
"If the time with your spouse is worth it and makes you feel closer," Mariene says, "you're going to want to do it again." And again. And again.
Develop the right attitude. Work a weekly date into your schedule. Cancel HBO. Give each other time alone. Get reconnected and start enjoying each other and God again. And, like us, you'll suddenly find you have time you didn't realize you had.
Jim Killam is a college journalism instructor who lives in Rockford, Illinois, with his wife, Lauren, and their three kids. He hopes to retire early after inventing the six-day weekend, selling the idea to corporate America and becoming fabulously wealthy.
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.