By Suzanne Burger

As you register your kindergartener for dance or skating lessons, roll up your sleeves to partake in yet another play group with your toddler, and call about registering your puppy for obedience training, ask yourself the following: “what commitment am I making this fall to maintain and strengthen my marriage?” Autumn is a busy time when many families fill their schedules with classes, volunteer opportunities and athletics. Yet few parents take time to assess the wellness of their primary relationship, their connection to their spouse.

Researchers have found that one third of marriages fail within the first year of couples becoming parents. More than 50% of failed marriages end in divorce within seven years of the wedding. While some of these break-ups may be due to profound incompatibilities or irreconcilable differences, a large percentage results from marital neglect. Marriages, in order to thrive, require time and effort. Masterful couples intuitively know this. They build in rituals to their daily routines that enable them to enliven their relationship with expressions of gratitude and admiration, updated “maps” of their partner’s life, and time spent away from the pressures of work, home and family.

So, as you work out your calendar and to do list for this year, take an inventory of your marriage. One sign that your marriage may need a “tune-up” is an increasing sense that you and your mate are living like ships passing in the night, with a quick, absent-minded peck on the cheek at partings and reunions. Other warning signals include, more frequent or heated arguments, greater defensiveness, a growing sense of loneliness, excessive focus away from your spouse and onto any of a myriad “third parties” – such as work, web-surfing, your children, gambling or substance abuse, extra-marital interests/affairs. It is important to be honest while making these observations as avoidance or denial, while creating a false sense of comfort, will prevent you from taking the necessary measures to alter any growing sense of estrangement or unhappiness with your partner.

Given all the other demands on your time and attention, you may wonder how you can possibly find. Many of the recommendations to follow require less in terms of time and energy and more in terms of attitude and awareness. Remembering to express appreciation and gratitude for your partner’s role in supporting the family can become a habit rather than a chore. A simple thank you for taking the garbage out or “you did a great job settling the kids into bed,” goes a long way to promoting an atmosphere of respect and admiration. Try to discuss problems in a gentle direct way as a specific complaint such as “the lights in the family room were left on again 3 times this week,” rather than “you never turn the lights out. Do you even look at our electric bill?!” Doing so permits your partner to hear you without becoming defensive.

It is equally important to learn how to address conflicts in ways that keep open the doors of communication. When blame, hostility and contempt are present, neither you nor your partner can feel safe enough nor calm enough to truly respect one another. In such an atmosphere, couples stop listening to each other. While some couples may be able to recall that mutual respect and appreciation, that sharing without becoming defensive are the keys to compromise, others may need to seek the help of a couples’ therapist to develop or rediscover these essential skills.

Of course, some of these skills require you to make spending time with your partner high on your list of activities. Taking time for your marriage is essential. Committing to a date night twice a month at a minimum) even if it means getting a sitter who leaves the kitchen and playroom in a mess is vital to your relationship. You are demonstrating to your partner, yourself and your children that you place a high value on your marriage. Children too benefit from observing that their parents have a unique and important connection that does not include them. Aside, from these dates, couples should commit to engaging with each other in conversation without distractions (kids, TV, cell phones, PDAs) on a daily basis, or as circumstances permit. Ideally, this conversation should be a time to share and be in the moment, as distinct from times to make decisions or work out family schedules. Such stress-reducing conversations, which while possible lasting just a few minutes, can go a long way towards enhancing the relationship.

So, the next time you agree to bake for your daughter’s bake sale or take on an extra project at work, or the next time you decide on a night out with the guys, consider how much of your limited resources, namely your time and attention, you are devoting to these involvements. Bear in mind that your marriage’s success depends on your investment in its maintenance and growth. After becoming more mindful of these goals and placing your relationship with your spouse among your top priorities, you will begin to see your relationship deepening and strengthening.