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Give your Valentine more than flowers and chocolate

So everyone is talking about romance and love as Valentine’s Day approaches, but what about the other 364 days a year? Are we making time for romance — or at least the occasional night out without the kids — in our marriage on a regular basis? In honor of this holiday (which I don’t particularly like, by the way), here’s a column I wrote in the spring (obvious by the fact that there is no picnicking in Albany at this time of year!). It seemed like a good day to share it again. Here you go. And Happy Valentine’s Day!

Prescription for a better marriage? Start dating.

About eight or nine years ago, my aunt gave me a lovely picnic basket backpack, complete with cloth napkins, plastic wine glasses, everything you’d need for a romantic al fresco meal in a park or on a beach. And every year since then I have considered donating it to a school garage sale because, quite frankly, romantic picnics just weren’t on our “to do” list.

But something stopped me from throwing that backpack into the Hefty bags along with old puzzles and board games bound for the bargain bin. I had a tiny glimmer of hope that some day we would dust off that backpack and take it for a spin.

Today was that day. Dennis and I met at Washington Park in Albany, across from his office at the New York State Catholic Conference, spread out a picnic blanket and ate a romantic lunch amid the sounds of giggling toddlers, buzzing bees and a distant lawnmower. Granted we had chocolate milk in the wine glasses since this was a workday lunch, but it was one of the best dates ever.

Why am I telling you this seemingly insignificant story? Because it is anything but insignificant. For 19 years of marriage, Dennis and I have all but ignored one very important element of our marriage: each other. Well, each other in a fun, relaxed, sometimes playful and romantic sense. We do everything together, I mean, everything, even a lot of our work, but we never seemed to be able to make the time for a date.

To make matters worse, in 19 years of marriage, we have not gone on a single vacation alone. We never even had a real honeymoon, just two nights away sandwiched in between job interviews and an apartment hunt. Last fall we finally made our first maiden voyage as a couple, but even then, it was a work trip.

We recently decided to look at our standard operating procedure and tweak the routine. We talked about how we want our marriage to look tomorrow and 20 years from now, and we realized that we needed what amounted to a marriage makeover. We had forgotten how to be a couple in the most basic sense, something that’s all too common among long-married husbands and wives. We assumed we needed to take care of everyone else first and neglected our couple-ness, but if we don’t take care of our love before all else, we’ll find ourselves looking at each other across the breakfast table one day, wondering who that stranger is staring back at us.

All of this was confirmed when I read a book Dennis received from a priest he met in Rome this past April, Marriage Insurance: 12 Rules to Live By, by Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman. The book offers 12 steps to a happier life together: weekly dates, annual vacations, regular “business” meetings, Sunday Mass, monthly confession, and daily prayer as a couple are among the steps. But at the heart of it all is one key instruction: “Spend time together.”

“That sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it is. But it’s the foundation of everything else,” Father Rocky writes. “Spend time together. Don’t drift apart until you’re living separate lives. If all you do to improve your marriage is spend time together, you’ll be making a big difference.”

Not time together paying the bills, not time together planning the kids’ extracurricular activities, but time together holding hands and doing the things that drew you together in the first place.

For the past few months, Dennis and I have kept up a weekly date night and a daily prayer routine, and what a difference it’s made. But the big news is that in October we will fulfill our dream of that never-taken honeymoon when Dennis joins me on the 13-day pilgrimage I’ll be leading through Italy. That’s amore!

When was the last time you went on a date with your mate? Get out your calendar, put something down in ink, and see what you’ve been missing.

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