Friday, November 24, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Keeping Love Alive -- Little Things You Can Do Every Day To Keep Your Relationship Strong And Passionate.

Special To The Seattle Times

Long, slow kisses. Lazy mornings in bed. Slow dancing to soft music. Candlelight dinners. Cold wine. Hot sex. That was then. This is now: Pecks on the cheek as you rush out the door. Sleepless nights. Barney tunes. Cheerios dinners. Warm bottles. Wet diapers. What's sex?

Can any couple's love life survive trial by children? Exhausted mothers want to know. One friend eagerly opened a book called "A Parent's Guide to Sex After Children." All the pages were blank. "Sex?" sighs another wearily. "The only `s' word I'm interested in is sleep."

But it doesn't have to be that way, says Ellen Kreidman, author of "How Can We Light a Fire When the Kids Are Driving Us Crazy?" (Villard), who contends that couples not only can but must find ways to work intimacy into their lives.

"I know you're tired. I know you're busy," says Kreidman. "But do you have 10 seconds? That's how long it takes to give . . . the kind of passionate kiss that can keep up a sexual connection."

In fact, lovely little things like kisses and compliments are exactly what can keep the fire in a marriage from going out. "People who have a sex life after children give each other day-to-day attention, not just as Mom and Dad, but as a man and a woman," says Melody Lowman, a psychotherapist and family life educator in San Francisco. They tease. They touch. They make each other feel good. And they're not the only ones who benefit.

"Children need to see parents holding hands with each other, giving each other goodbye hugs, rubbing a shoulder because of affection, not because it's stiff or sore," says Lowman. "Remember: The best gift you can give your child is a healthy, loving relationship with your spouse."

Start with a smile

Real intimacy doesn't depend on a body by Fonda, peekaboo underwear or exotic erotica. "The relationship is the key," says psychologist and marital therapist Doris Wild Helmering of St. Louis. "You have to establish a feeling of closeness. You have to lead with your brain and make a conscious decision to connect with your spouse, rather than depend on warm feelings that may never develop on their own because you're so busy." Here are some ways to start:

-- Smile. "Sometimes when people have been living together awhile they stop smiling at each other," says Helmering. "Yet it really makes an impact when your mate walks into a room and you give him a big smile."

-- Greet your mate at the end of the day. Rather than calling out a "hello" as you continue spooning applesauce into the baby's mouth or making a salad for dinner, stop what you're doing for a few minutes. Give your partner a kiss and a hug. It says, "I'm glad you're home."

-- Lighten up. "Try not to be serious all the time; instead, be free with your laughter," Helmering advises. "When you giggle about something the kids did or laugh at a mistake you made, you'll seem more human, more appealing to your mate."

-- Compliment her. Tell her you have always loved her nose or her chin. Notice that the blue in his shirt brings out the blue in his eyes. Say "I think you're great - have I told you that lately?"

-- Snuggle with your feet. "When you wake up in the morning, take your foot and touch his," Helmering suggests. "It's another way of reconnecting and keeping the closeness in a relationship."

-- Listen. "Letting your mate talk while you give your complete attention without interrupting is a real gift," says Helmering. Show that you're serious about giving this gift by setting aside a few minutes every evening for just the two of you. Ask the children to leave the room. Turn off the television and turn on the telephone-answering machine.

-- Hug. Just as a 10-second kiss can convey passion, a 20-second hug - another daily necessity, says Kreidman - can show affection, understanding and friendship. Any time is a good time for a hug.

-- Let her know she's on your mind. Call to say "hi" or fax a "thinking-of-you" note to your wife's office during the day. If he's out of town, leave a "miss-you" message at his hotel.

-- Have one dinner alone together each week. You don't have to go out to do this. Just feed the kids early and make sure they have a video or some board games to keep them busy. Set the dining-room table, light the candles and practice the too-often-lost art of grown-up conversation.

-- Read to each other. Bedtime stories aren't just for kids. Cuddle together and take turns reading after you get into bed at night. It's a nice way to end the day.

Drifting into a pattern

Many couples who find that their sex life isn't what it used to be have simply gotten out of the habit of making love. "Any crisis, any change in the normal routine - a flu that hits everyone in the family, house guests, one partner being caught up in an especially difficult business deal - can mean that a couple stops having sex as often as they once did," says Melody Lowman.

"Rather than making love once or twice a week, they drift into a pattern of making love every other week or once a month. When that happens, sexual desire can quickly drop off," Lowman explains.

Although passion naturally ebbs and flows in a long-term relationship, couples may find that their sexual encounters become further apart. "The partners wait for sexual interest and feelings to come back on their own, but they may not," Lowman notes. "You have to take action and behave in sensual ways. The feelings will follow."

Romantic evenings and special occasions can put the spark back into a relationship, but day-to-day interactions are what ensure that it doesn't go out. "Even during the times when you have to put sex on the back burner, you need to maintain the connection between you so that you'll be able to bring it back to the front burner again," says Helmering. Here are some ways to keep up the heat at your house:

-- Flirt. Stroke your partner's face tenderly as you talk. Give a seductive smile and a wink from across the room. "If you consciously decide to be flirtatious for an evening, chances are that you'll wind up in bed," Helmering predicts.

-- Take time to be sensual. "You can be warm and sensuous with each other even if you don't start out feeling like that," says Lowman. "Let your partner brush your hair, or offer to brush his. Trade neck rubs. Allow yourself to tune in to the physical sensations."

-- Steal some moments alone. Take advantage of your child's afternoon naps or play dates on the weekend - not to catch up on chores, but to spend time focusing on each other.

-- Be unpredictable. Come to bed wearing only a pajama top - or nothing at all. On another night, bring two glasses of wine to bed for the two of you to enjoy.

Terms of endearment

-- Call your mate by a pet name. It's easy to fall into the habit of saying "Mommy will do it" or "Go tell Daddy." When you're addressing each other around the children, use your own names. When you're in more intimate settings, use a special loving term of endearment. Think back to what you called each other when you were courting.

-- Join your husband or wife in the shower or tub. Choose a time when the kids are busy with breakfast or cartoons, and lock the bathroom door. After years of scrubbing little bodies, you and your partner may have forgotten how nice it is to have someone scrub your back or wash your hair.

-- Stay home alone. An easy alternative to planning a weekend away is reclaiming your home as adult turf. "One couple has the sitter take their children to a motel for the night," says Kreidman. Or you could send the kids to the grandparents - or trade kids' sleep-over dates with friends who have children. "That way you can make love in any room in the house."

Even with the children home, you can put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign and treat yourself to "room service" in your bedroom, complete with takeout food and a sexy video.

Ultimately, it's not what you do, but the thought behind it that counts most. "A lot of the couples who come to see me are great parents but lousy partners," says Helmering. They focus on their kids all the time, but they never focus on each other. Yet that's the real secret of staying close."

(Copyright, 1995, Dianne Hales. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate Intl.)

(Contributing editor Dianne Hales, the mother of one, frequently writes about family relationships.)

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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