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01/25/2015 08:50 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2015

How To Connect With Your Partner (Or Save Your Marriage) Once The Kids Have Left Home

Taking risks or doing something new together can put the spark back into a relationship, from physical challenges to learning something new to, finally, holidays without the kids, says High50's Celia Dodds.

There comes a time in every relationship when there's an urgent need to reconnect: when the kids leave, in the aftermath of an affair, or when everything's just got a bit stale.

Even couples who felt they were rubbing along quite amicably while the kids were at home are forced to recognize that they've been living parallel lives when the kids leave. Suddenly - and how did that happen? - partners who told each other their most intimate secrets feel tongue-tied when it comes to the stuff that really matters. It's hard to imagine ever again feeling the way you did when you first met.

"I used to go out for dinner with Patrick and think, I don't know what to talk to him about," says Nina, who has been married for 29 years. "Being back to just the two of us took some adjustment.

"We had become a bit estranged without even realizing it, because I was so involved with our two children and he was working long hours. We really needed to rekindle the togetherness."

Couples Taking Risks Together

One of the best ways to reclaim the closeness is by doing stuff together. The riskier or more challenging the better. Not domestic stuff or DIY (the ultimate passion killer) but shared experiences that reintroduce that crucial element of risk and daring, the butterflies-in-the-stomach uncertainty of those heady days when you first met.

You can't go back to the way you were; who'd want to, honestly? But it is possible to reignite the passion of those early days, and take the relationship on to a whole new level.

Start by making individual lists of things you've always wanted to try: one-off experiences, courses, holidays, the lot. It's a bit like when couples first get together. They're constantly trying new things out and discovering each other. Above all they have fun, something which long-term couples seriously need to reclaim.

Have An Adventure: Adrenaline Is Sexy

A sliver of fear can certainly up the ante. Advice columnist Suzie Hayman says, "The endorphin rush you feel after you've done something scary makes you feel great. And if you've done it with your partner it can be very, very sexy."

Nina was persuaded to try all sorts of scary stuff by her husband Patrick, including scuba diving, hang-gliding and white-water rafting. Like a lot of mothers she felt braver after her kids had left home. Somehow the maternal instinct to protect both herself and her offspring lessened.

But she still didn't feel that brave: "I would never have chosen hang gliding, but Patrick said, 'Come on, you'll love it.' As I was running towards the edge of the cliff I remember thinking, what the hell am I doing? I was absolutely terrified. But I'd just watched him jump off and that helped me. He was incredibly supportive and very proud of me.

"For days afterwards we were in fits of laughter when we talked about it and the incredible view of the landscape below us. It's wonderful to have such special shared memories."

Break Out Of Your Comfort Zone

What matters most is not so much feeling scared - that's not for everyone - as taking a risk and getting out of your comfort zone. So the best activities are probably the ones neither of you has tried before.

There's something very special about discovering a new place or a new activity together, making mistakes and egging each other on. Communication is never merely verbal; a reassuring smile or a supportive hug can make you feel just as close.

Try not to self-censor ideas you think your partner might reject. The whole point is to broaden each others' horizons, and avoid making assumptions about their likes and dislikes, because people really do change.

By the same token keep an open mind yourself: don't dismiss your partner's suggestions out of hand. This is about seeing your partner in a new light, and challenging the habits you've both got into.

Risks In The Bedroom

For many long-term couples the real risks need to be taken in the bedroom. Too often both partners are keen to move their sex life out of the doldrums when the kids go, but neither dares admit to the other that they're dissatisfied. Allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable can be just as terrifying as abseiling off a cliff. Sticking with the status quo - however disappointing - seems so much easier than risking rejection.

Hayman, columnist and trustee of Family Lives www.familylives.org.uk, says, "One way to cope is to pretend sex doesn't matter, that you're too tired and too busy anyway. Admitting to your partner that you would like things to be different makes you vulnerable. There's a real fear of what you partner might say. The fear of rocking the boat, of changing how the other person sees you, is enormous."

It's unrealistic to expect to go from 0 to 100 overnight. An important first step is to re-build closeness outside the bedroom (see above!). Then the trick is to imagine how fantastic it would feel if your partner's response is positive; then things could really move on.

Having taken the risk of breaking the ice, both partners are likely to feel more confident about suggesting further changes, knowing they won't be dismissed or ridiculed. And that is what is at the heart of every strong relationship: the mutual trust which allows both partners to feel safe about taking risks.

Five ways to improve your relationship:
  • Holidays are the perfect opportunity to kick off a new phase of your relationship. Choose somewhere neither of you have been before, and go without kids or friends.
  • Watch movies with your favorite sexy love scenes. Watch them together, compare and contrast.
  • Try a range of new activities and courses.
  • Try stuff your partner fancies - even if it is Scottish dancing.
  • Give up anything you're not enjoying.

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