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Trade Secrets Counselors tell how they hold onto romance

These days many couples define romance as a few minutes together without interruption.

Exhausted from careers, parenting and household duties, wives and husbands often struggle to give each other the kind of treatment that kindled their courtship.

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But it is possible, according to five local counselors who believe they are more aware of creating magic in their own marriages because they have spent so much time considering the relationships of others.

L Their suggestions for keeping long-term relationships fresh?

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Listening closely to one another, scheduling time to be alone together -- it doesn't happen by itself in many busy lives -- being playful together, cultivating mutual interests, confiding in one another and being extravagant with laughter. They also offer personal examples.

Steve Sobelman and Sloane Brown

Psychologist Steve Sobelman and reporter Sloane Brown usually meet up as lumps in bed: News director for WLIF Lite 102 Radio, she goes to sleep by 8 p.m on weeknights in order to leave the house at 4:15 a.m. Dr. Sobelman keeps 14-hour days, which shuttle him between hisclinical practice, Psych Associates, in Towson, and his students at Loyola College.

During their 8 1/2 years together, they have confronted career, parenting and stepparenting issues -- Mr. Sobelman has two children in their 20s from his first marriage -- but their biggest test as a couple came last summer. Dr. Sobelman, then 47, had a heart attack and bypass surgery from which he has fully recovered. The episode left an indelible impression of the importance of enjoying their time together, says 39-year-old Ms. Brown.

A gourmet cook, she began concocting exotic "heart-healthy" menus, the kind of gesture her husband says makes their relationship special. And both believe in fueling romance with humor.

Steve: We're not afraid to let the little kids in us out. We'll get silly.

Sloane: When we're driving alone, we'll sing off-key a lot with the radio, try to drown each other out. We do really incredibly mature things like that!

Steve: We are serious about those things that need to be emphasized as responsibilities, but everything else, well . . .

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Sloane: Even the responsibilities have a lighter side. You have to take everything with a grain of salt. If we had to go through a checklist of what each other was looking for, a sense of humor was probably No. 1 on the checklist -- that is, other than incredible good looks!

Steve: Don't you dare say that!

Sloane: Give me a break, you're taking that seriously? . . . Seriously, I don't think I would ever want the kind of marriage where you never ran into problems. I would look at that as boring. It would mean the other person wasn't a challenge. I want to be with someone who's challenging. I want the highs and lows of life. I don't want something that is totally even-keeled because that is boredom.

Steve: Boredom and stagnation. Part of a relationship is learning totolerate differences. And I really mean to use that word tolerance. Sloane doesn't like everything I do, and I don't like everything she does. But our philosophies are the same: "It's one trip through, why not make it a good one?" . . . We know we don't have a lot of time with each other, and we don't take it for granted. We really try to make it quality time.

Sloane. Which sounds so yuppyish: The whole quality thing.

Steve: Oh, it sounds horrible, but we recognize that we have to do it.

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Sloane: If either one of us had to say what makes our marriage work, I think we'd say, "We're still both best friends first." I know that sounds trite, like it should have a little smiley happy face next to it, but I think it's true. And we rely on that. You go through different moods and different phases and all of that. And there are times when there's passion or times you're too busy, but as long as you stay friends . . .

MA Steve: And we're not only talkers, we're both listeners, too.

Melinda Fitting and Jim Eastham

Psychologist Melinda Fitting and her 42-year-old husband Jim Eastham, chairman of the Emergency Health Services department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, share their lives with two teen-age sons from Dr. Eastham's former marriage and their 3-year-old daughter. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Fitting, 44, is president of a new business, Comprehensive Geriatric Services.

Married since 1985, the couple built a wing onto their house, which enabled Mr. Eastham's father to live with them until he died. They talk of hard-earned victories over many of the stress points of contemporary marriage: dual careers, in-laws, teen-agers, day care and stepparenting.

For the moment, they say, romance is a matter of scheduling. The couple locks in dates by subscribing to Center Stage and Orioles games. They speak of finding the time to be alone together as a continual challenge.

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Jim: The sad thing about the lifestyle that so many of us lead is that romance is the easiest thing to get pushed out of the way. It's not like anyone is neglecting it intentionally.

Melinda: Most of the couples I see spend more time working than they do with their families. So the primary energy time is going toward work, and the rest of the energy has to go toward dependents, if they have children. You just can't say to a child, "Gee, I don't feel like making dinner for you tonight, so can you go to bed now please so Dad and I can be alone?"

What happens in every family I know of is that a tremendous amount of energy goes to the kids, then you go to bed. That's why we try to have dates.

Jim: You've got to lock in your recreation in a busy household; otherwise you come home exhausted and keep forgetting it.

Melinda: I tell people all the time to take time alone with their spouses for the sake of their marriages. If they don't have money to hire baby-sitters, they can work out a co-op system with their family or friends to get away [overnight]. It's amazing what 24 hours can do to renew you. To get a decent night's sleep, have breakfast and read the paper without interruption.

James and Emma Smith

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Psychologist James Smith, 51, maintains a private practice at the Child and Family Services Center in Columbia while working as the psychologist at the Hannah More Center School and as mental health consultant at Woodstock Job Corps Center. Over the years, Dr. Smith has taught at Loyola College and worked as director of the counseling centers at Georgetown University and the University of the District of Columbia.

He and his 49-year-old wife, Emma, have been married 27 years; they have a 25-year-old daughter, Tracey; Mrs. Smith has worked as a homemaker as well as helping her husband with the business side of his practice. She is also taking care of a 91-year-old family member who lives with them.

The Smiths share many interests: travel, exotic food, science fiction, antique shops, brain-teaser games. As they put it, they love each other's company.

James: Sometimes people forget the kinds of things that attracted them to each other. They stop doing the sorts of things that worked well for them initially: Being responsive, being attentive, doing helpful things that the other person likes. The more you do, the better the relationship is.

Emma: When I look at him, I still see that same person I met. I thought he was really cute when we met. He still is. And he was also such a nice person. He's always taking my feelings into consideration. His training makes it easier for him to listen to me. He'll let me finish everything I'm going to say.

James: We have a good sense of humor and can laugh about daily things. We'll both get something out of something that not everyone findsfunny, like a play on words. It's important that people enjoy being with each other, talking with each other.

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Mike and Judy Plaut

Both Plauts are in the counseling business. Psychologist Mike Plaut, 51, is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a practicing sex therapist. Judy Plaut is a licensed certified social worker and social work supervisor at Levindale Adult Day Care. They often work together at workshops and retreats for medical students, and Ms. Plaut leads small groups in her husband's course on intimate human behavior.

Married for 24 years, the Plauts enjoy traveling, cooking gourmet meals together, attending concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and cross-country skiing. They have no children.

Both say they bring awareness from their clinical practices back to their marriage and work to preserve the intimacy they say is essential to long-term romance.

Mike: To me a relationship, like life, is a continual growth process. I never want to feel that I've arrived. I'm always working at what I'm doing, whether it's professionally or personally. . . . It's important not to take each other for granted. To try to remain attracted to each other in various ways.

It's also important not to let things build up, to take the risk of

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saying what you feel. You have to take responsibility for expressing your own feelings and wants, realizing that your partner may disagree or may reject you.

Judy: It's very tough for young couples to make a commitment to trust another person: They're always so afraid the relationship is going to break up. Sex they might be able to have, but intimacy and sex are two different things. To really build an intimate relationship with another person, and to allow that person to really get to know you, to be vulnerable with them, is very, very tough.

Mike: Sometimes the fear of being swallowed up in a relationship is so overwhelming that it scares people, and one way of #F expressing that is not to be able to function sexually. People express their fears of intimacy in non-sexual ways too. To be intimate, you have to be willing to depend on someone else.

Mary Anne Cordahl and Steve Kelly

Psychologists Mary Anne Cordahl and Steve Kelly not only run Columbia Psychological Services, but also work together occasionally at counseling couples. Married in 1981, both have grown children from previous marriages.

They joke about turning 50 -- they both did last year -- and describe their life as an adventure: They exercise together, love traveling and give each other mystery trips as birthday presents each year.

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Steve: My highest priority is that Mary Anne is the person I'm going to grow old with. I know the kids are going to go away, I know that I may not want to be a psychologist forever. What made being in the Navy better and what made raising children better was being with the right person.

A therapist once said to me, "If your wife isn't the most beautiful person in the world to you, then something's wrong." You know you're with the right person when you admire her more than anyone else.

Mary Anne: Love is taking action. If you love someone, you better do things that are loving, you better give what you want to get back. Steve is a good husband in that he takes care of what's important in his life. I know I'm important because he pays attention to me, is affectionate with me and gives me lots of approval.

I don't think anyone in the world thinks I'm as funny as Steve does. I feel Steve's heart in his life with me, in his working life with me and even in his laughter. As therapists, it's important that we be technically well-trained. But if we're going to be effective with people, we have to do that with our hearts.



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