Early on in the marriage preparation course I help facilitate, we talk about marriage as a primary relationship.
The engaged couples readily agree that their relationship must have top priority in their lives. They are cautioned that in practice, once the honeymoon is over, this all too easily can cease to be the case.
We go on to brainstorm competing priorities that can insidiously nudge our relationship out of its premier spot. The most common ones are included below.
Work. A job that saps our time and energy - requiring long hours, a commute or regular travel - can gradually drive a wedge between us and our spouse. So, too, can workaholism.
Family. Relatives can invade our "couple space" by phoning or dropping by frequently or at inopportune times. Or, one or both of us may find their expectations unrealistic or unfair. For example, they may want us to work in the family business, to move in with them or move them into our home, or to help them out financially. We may also feel pressure to participate in traditions that aren't practical or with which one of us is not comfortable.
Friends. Two issues are key: the amount of time spent with friends, individually and together, and the types of activities involved. Certain activities, such as nightclubbing and vacationing with single friends, may no longer be appropriate and in any case may be unsettling to our spouse.
Frequently going out with co-workers for dinner or drinks can steal precious time away from our partner - and perhaps also exceed an agreed-upon entertainment budget, adding to any resentment.
Or, as a couple we may have a large network of mutual friends and be constantly entertaining or meeting up with the gang, such that we are rarely alone together.
Leisure activities. Involvement in many recreational activities or intense involvement in one or two extracurricular pursuits, however healthy or noble, can leave little time to spend with our spouse. Examples of activities include doing volunteer work, participating in a sport, watching sports, playing in a band and engaging in a hobby.
Technology. However unintentionally, we may become preoccupied with television, the Internet, gaming systems, cellphones, Blackberries or other electronic devices, accessing them obsessively. As a result, our partner may find it difficult to get our undivided attention for any length of time.
Children. Once we become parents, we may find ourselves focusing all our energy and attention on our offspring - our pride and joy. But if we neglect our couple relationship, we may discover when the kids are grown that we no longer have anything in common and the intimacy is long gone from our marriage.
In order to flourish, our relationship must be continually nurtured by an ongoing investment of time and effort. This requires consciously carving out "couple time," no matter how full our schedules may be.
We can start by setting mutually agreeable boundaries around contact with family and friends, and communicating with them gently but firmly.
For example, we may ask parents to call before visiting (to check if it's a convenient time) and to refrain from phoning after a certain time of night. It's also a good idea to negotiate "rules" regarding our time together - for example, no using technology during mealtimes or when we are out somewhere special.
In addition, we'd do well to establish daily sharing time, to connect with each other on an intimate level. It can be as simple as sitting down together to talk about our day when we both get home from work, instead of automatically turning on the TV or computer or dashing off to do chores.
Communication needn't always be serious, though. It's equally important to express affection and appreciation and to have fun together, including going on regular dates, similar to when we were courting.
Keeping communication lines open will ensure that we grow together rather than drift apart and become, in effect, "married singles."
Spending quality time together ensures we are there for one another through life's inevitable ups and downs. It also keeps us rediscovering the things we enjoy about our spouse that initially drew us to him or her.
Given the huge rewards, establishing and protecting couple time is well worth the effort.
(Lisa Petsche is a mother of three and a social worker, with over a decade of experience in marriage ministry.)