How to Be Happily Married…With Kids

Today is my eight-year wedding anniversary. Those of you who've followed my writing know I'm a big believer in maintaining a life outside of raising kids and, most importantly, a life with my husband outside of my kids. This statement may make me unpopular but the most important relationship in my house is the one I have with my husband, Nick. I adore my kids and am a very hands-on mom (I tailored my career so I could be home with them), but none of that works if Nick and I don't work and, so, we work at us. For the past six years, that's meant carving out the time and emotional energy to maintain our bond while raising a family. It hasn't always been easy (and something tells me it may get harder once we welcome our third in November), but having a happy and healthy marriage is tops on our list of life priorities. And as the years tick by--and we see marriages ending all around us--the stakes seem higher than ever.

I'll admit I used to be a little smug about my relationship with Nick. I thought we were untouchable because we had such a deep, deep bond (we've been together since 1999 and have been through a lot as a couple, including my cancer diagnosis). But things definitely get complicated when you throw more humans into the dynamic. And while the baby years can be draining in some ways, I'm finding that these years-with an almost-six-year-old and almost-four-year-old-are more challenging to us as a couple. Because the stuff the kids throw at us and demand from us and need from us is more challenging. We have more to juggle and trying to remain on the same team can be, well trying.

I would probably say last year was our hardest but we're ending it on really solid ground. We're still able to find our way back to the foundation we built over all those years--and I never want to lose that ability. We love being parents, and it's definitely strengthened our bond, but we loved each other first and never want to forget that. In the blink of an eye our kids will be out on their own and I want to be one of those empty-nest couples who is still actually in love, not just dinner companions. Nick is my best friend and I want that to still be the case in 20, 30, 40 years. Not to mention, having a healthy marriage is good for the kids. Yes, it's kind of unsexy and unromantic to think you have to work at something that used to come so simply to you but, again, with kids in the picture you do what you got to do. For us that means date nights (hate the term, love the concept), sitting down to meals together after the kids go to bed, keeping a good babysitter on the payroll, talking things out before resentment builds, laughing and trying not to take any of it too seriously. Back in February, I wrote a list of the specific things that have worked for our marriage. My favorites:

6. When you do go out, try to talk about things other than your children. If you must, stick to non-controversial topics like how cute they are, not whether you should get her in dance this year or how to handle his lithsp. The point of getting out is to remind yourselves that you're more than just parents. Talking about something other than the minutiae of child-rearing is a good way to do that.

2. Don't set the romance expectations too high on a day-to-day basis. Simply sitting on the same couch while watching TV (instead of, say, across the room from each other) counts as quality time. Bonus points if the couch isn't super long so that your bodies are actually touching in some way.

11. For every house/child/finance-related question or comment you e-mail or text each other, write one that is just plain funny or flirty. Nick and I text each other a lot and having a laugh-out-loud-worthy exchange with him reminds me why we fell in love-and that we still are. That's important.

13. Never let yourself get too hungry. You know how with kids you always need a stash of crackers and cheese sticks on you at all times? Well, parents can have low blood sugar moments, too, so best to throw a few snacks in your purse for your purposes. I can't tell you how many of my fights with Nick end with one of saying, "sorry, I was just hungry."

Have we mastered all of these? No. Do we still have our issues? Yes. But we try and that's what's important. And since we have many, many years ahead (eight years is a drop in the "till-death-do-us-part" bucket), I'm always open to suggestions. So in honor of today's milestone, I reached out to my friends who seem happily-married-with-kids to get the tricks and tips that have worked for them. Some of these things we already do; others we need to be better about. I'm definitely taking notes! Most of this stuff is common sense and yet, it can so easily get forgotten in the day-to-day hustle and shuffle that is life. Here goes:

Don't lose your sense of humor
"The best advice I ever got was 'forever is a long time, make sure to spend it with someone who makes you laugh.' The first couple months with a newborn have been stressful and demanding to say the least. But there have been moments (particularly during late-night, explosive diaper changes) that we have looked at each other and burst into laughter. I mean, seeing your husband covered in poop is funny. I'm thankful to have married someone that agrees."--Katie, married three years with an infant

Be kind to each other
"Love really is in the details-the daily details. The 'good mornings' and 'I made coffees' and the way we speak to each other, small tender touches in passing. It's easy to get wrapped up in the stresses and excitements of daily life and to lose track of the way we treat each other. But those daily interactions set the tone for the relationship as a whole. I find that when I really pay attention to how I'm speaking and to the way I treat my husband while we're busily preparing for dinner, or juggling a kiddo bedtime routine, my marriage runs more smoothly, and both of us feel good about our relationship."--Taylor, married four years with one child and one on the way (check out her blog).

Don't over-schedule your kids
"Lots of sex and date night go without saying, but the best advice I've gotten recently is don't have your kids involved in too many things. It puts a lot of stress on a marriage when you're both running in different directions all the time like ships passing in the night. We cut back on the kids' activities (they didn't care!) and there's a lot less insanity and logistical nightmares to manage so we're all more mellow and we have more down time together as a family. It's really made a difference."--Melissa, married 11 years with three kids

Establish a bedtime ritual for your kids
"We did this starting from the very beginning and it's essential. I hear about people who spend hours putting their kids to bed and I'm like, no way. I need it all to happen in a compressed, organized fashion so that I know there'll be couple time soon. Couple time can seriously be catching up on not-suitable-for-kids Showtime or HBO shows, as my husband and I do, but that's it-no kids. Adults only. It doesn't have to be about getting out of the house and having a date, it's about being adults and behaving like the couple you were-scotch for him; ice cream for me."--Denise, married for 12 years with two kids (check out her book Mean Moms Rule!)

Focus on little gestures
"I try to leave a note for my wife every now and then to let her know something funny, a quote from one of the kids, something sexy about her or just that I know how lucky I got with her. Also I try to set up her toothbrush so she doesn't have to squeeze out the last bit of toothpaste from the tube or if I'm home I brush the kids' teeth, since I know that's not her favorite thing to do. I don't really have any grand advice. Our kids make us nuts as everyone else's do, I'm just always willing to take my chances in all of this with her on my team."--Kyle, married seven years with three kids

Go out without the kids
"The number one thing that makes our marriage work is that we have fun. I can see how that is missing in a lot of the relationships around me. Everyone is so focused on working and making money and taking care of the kids. We spend a ton of time doing fun things with our kids, but we make sure to get out alone, too. My dad recently commented on how often my husband and I go on dates, which is not something my mom and dad did very often when they were raising their family. Well, yeah, Dad, we do! And we have a really really strong marriage because of it. And our kids are really happy, too!"--Caroline, married eight years with two kids

Go out without your spouse, too
"What makes our relationship strong is that we still do our own thing. He plays in golf and softball leagues and goes out afterwards with the guys and I go out with my friends and travel for work. We don't need to be together 24/7. I love that because it brings in more conversation/gossip when we come home from our respective nights out. Communication is key, but if you're together all the time you don't have anything new to talk about. I don't understand some wives who don't let or give them a hard time when their husbands go out. Yes, it has to be fair by both parties but I think it builds stronger relationships when you get out on your own."--Jen, married 12 years with two kids

Present a united front for the kids
"We decide on a way to do things and when we're reprimanding them or rewarding them we do it together. The point being, if one of us doesn't agree with the method being employed, we don't bring it up at that moment, we talk about it after--it helps keep balance and respect in the household, which is so important. That and having a good babysitter!"--Sarah, married four years with two kids

Fight fair
"For us it's about good communication--being able to express ourselves fully and listening (and hearing) each other. No mud slinging, no throwing each other under the bus and no name calling-ever. Even when we want to wring each other's necks and can't stand the sight of each other. And complete forgiveness. Not in a 'I'm going to forgive you but I won't forget' kind of way, I'm talking wiping the slate clean every single time even for repeat offenses."--Courtney, married six years with two kids.

Just do it
"When sex feels like the last thing you can conjure up energy for, when you have a dozen excuses (I feel tired, I feel fat, I have to empty the dishwasher), just do it. It's not always how it used to be when we were in our 20s and I had time (and the metabolism) to slip into lingerie and make a big to-do. But he doesn't care. He just wants to be close to me that way. And, hell, that's a damn good thing. Bonus: I always feel better in the afterglow, too. Everyone is happier after sex!"--Megan, married five years with one kid and one on the way

Get out of town!
"One of the best things we do is get away for little trips now and then--even if it's just a night or two. I think it's not only good for your marriage but also for the kids to see you have a whole separate relationship with each other outside of 'parenting.' I think that will only make them feel more secure overall--after they give you a brief guilt trip of course!"--Aimee, married nine years with three kids

Are you married with kids? Happily? What makes your relationship work?