The Too-Comfortable Zone
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The Too-Comfortable Zone

Coupled? Complacent? How to combat the inevitability of letting yourself go physically, emotionally, and sexually.

Cozy in Love

It's a big milestone in any new relationship: entering the Comfort Zone. You're there the first time you two rent a movie in sweats instead of dolling up for dinner, when you do something silent and separate (like work you've brought home) together, when -- perhaps most romantic of all -- you both do...an errand. No, really: that's when you truly start to feel cozy and couple-y. When he's seen you without makeup in your avocado masque, without your contacts, you know you're in A Relationship. So, paradoxically, it's "exciting" to be boring.

But not forever. Spouses and long-term partners do have a tendency to "let themselves go" over time. Cozy can become routine, sweats can become unsexy -- not to mention never used for actual sweating, say, in a gym -- and sex can become...wait, what sex? And of course, the pounds can pack on. Studies show that men and women gain six to eight pounds after getting married -- and that's just in the first two years. (From the No Fair files: Women seem to be especially prone to gain.) Overall, eventually, "boring" can become, well, boring -- and possibly unhealthy, for both you and your partnership.

Still, at its core, "letting yourself go" is normal, both psychologically and physiologically. "When you're wooing each other, you work and plan to try to please. But when you roll over and your partner is next to you, you stop thinking you have to seduce each other and cultivate your rapport," says Sandra Leiblum, PhD, professor of psychiatry and Director of the Center for Sexual and Marital Health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey. "And once you're past the courtship phase, other priorities become pressing: work, the household, children, extended family. People are genuinely stressed, low on time, and distracted from each other."

Like Rachel, 34, of Clifton, New Jersey. "Try having three little kids and working full time, with a husband who works two jobs. My mustache is braid-able and my hair is salt-and-pepper gray, instead of Clairol medium brown. Even my sweatpants are tight now!" she says. "Letting myself 'go' was the only way to meet all of our basic needs!"

Combat Complacency

Sound familiar? Sure. "Letting yourself go" is a reality, but it doesn't have to be a permanent problem. Here are 10 ways to get yourselves back.

  1. Enlist each other's support. Some husbands may have a vested interest in their wives' not dieting. "If she loses weight he may feel threatened," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Lafayette, California and author of the forthcoming Body Intelligence. Establish with each other that it's all about getting fit, not looking like Jessica Simpson. Adds Abramson: "Healthy weight loss for many people is thoroughly feasible as long as they're not overly preoccupied with some ideal goal that they're unlikely to reach."
  2. Take small steps. "You need very little to get started on fitness," says celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, author of 5 Factor Fitness (Putnam, 2004). "You don't have to join a health club or buy thousands of dollars' worth of equipment. You don't need to say 'I'm cutting all carbs for six months' -- that's what makes people quit after two weeks." (Some studies show that up to 60 percent of people who start new exercise regimens quit within six months.) Start gradually by adding walks or simple at-home workout tapes to your routine.
  3. Exercise together. In an Indiana University study, couples who worked out together were more likely to stick to a program than were individuals who worked out without their spouses. Bonus: if you're looking to steam things up elsewhere, then working out together is a two-fer! "Sexual tension can arise when partners work out together: there's hormones, blood pumping, physicality that maybe they haven't had in a while," says Pasternak. "And they feel more confident about themselves -- that also renews attraction."
  4. Devise practical solutions. Getting out of a diet/fitness rut doesn't require an extreme life makeover; small shifts in your routine can make a big difference -- and subtract pounds with little effort other than teamwork. Suggests Abramson: "You could say, 'How about no more ice cream in the house, but once a week we take the kids to Baskin-Robbins?' or 'I'll serve the food in the kitchen and bring the plates into the dining room,'" keeping seconds a few more steps out of reach.
  5. Pay compliments. "Remember that seduction begins outside the bedroom -- and that people need to hear they're wanted, beautiful, sexy...you can't hear too much of a good thing!" says Leiblum. Works for Leah, 48, of Brooklyn, New York. "Obviously I don't look like I did 25 years ago. What's nice is that my husband claims to not care," she says. "He's affectionate, sweetly possessive, he hugs me in public -- it makes me feel great."
  6. Shift your sexual standards. Many couples wait for conditions to be "perfect" -- kids asleep, a new bottle of Bailey's, a full moon...that is, they wait forever. They also often think that sex is "intercourse or nothing -- and nothing often wins," says Barry McCarthy, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and author, with his wife Emily, of Rekindling Desire (Brunner-Routledge, 2003). The real goal, he says, is to "integrate sexual touching into the rest of their lives." So don't not start something just because you can't "finish" it: take your morning shower together, grope each other slyly when the kids aren't looking.
  7. Schedule sex. Sound unromantic? Quite the opposite, says Laurie Mintz, PhD, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a psychologist in private practice. "The notion of having sex at the end of a long exhausting day can feel like one more demand," she says. "But when you schedule it, you make time for it -- and you look forward to it." Plus: scheduled sex gets you back into the swing of things, leading to...unscheduled sex.
  8. Think outside the bed. "The fact that sex slowed down after a few years didn't bother me as much as the fact that it always happened in the same place. I was sad to realize how little thought or planning we were putting into it," says Pauline, 33, of San Leandro, California. "I told my husband I'd rather forego sex than have it be just reflexive, last-thing-to-do-before-falling-asleep sex. So we instituted a rule: we have to have NON-BED sex -- doesn't matter where, just as long as it's not in bed -- at least once a month. I highly recommend it!"
  9. Take a break from each other. The time you don't spend with the kids doesn't have to be 100 percent Together Time. Rather, carving out even a little time for reading or other wish-I-had-time-for-them projects can give you more new things to talk about, enhancing the time you do spend together. "Even a half-day 'vacation' can make you miss each other!" says Maryann Troiani, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Barrington, Illinois, and coauthor, with Michael Mercer, of Change Your Underwear, Change Your Life (Castle Gate, 1997).
  10. Embrace the parts of "letting go" that you love. Ultimately, it's up to you to pick and choose what parts need changing -- and surely many things ain't broke. "I shave my legs only on anniversaries, birthdays, and Federal holidays," says Cheryl, 48, of Milford, Pennsylvania. "Luckily, my husband doesn't seem to mind, especially since I don't bug him about shaving on the weekends or vacations. It IS more comfortable this way, for both of us -- and surely it means we love our inner Me's!" She adds: "Still, every once in a while I feel sorry for the guy, and surprise him with an unexpected exfoliation."

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