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It's a date: Couples reclaim 'us' time to bolster ties

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

When kids and careers and the fact that a day is only so long collide, couples often find they have little time to invest in each other, in the "us" of a marriage.

But experts say vibrant relationships exist partly because couples carve out time to date again — even if it's sometimes lunch at DelTaco for Bill and Tammy Hulterstrom after 29 years of marriage, or Nate and Tiffany Bird dreaming over house plans for an imaginary "someday" haven while their three little girls sleep just down the hall.

Research from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia showed clearly that couples who spend time just with each other on a regular basis, paying the same kind of focused attention they did when they dated and their romance was young, are "markedly" more likely to have high-caliber relationships and lower divorce rates than couples who don't make together time.

According to the project's report, "The Date Night Opportunity," the benefits of spending time together include better communication, sexual satisfaction and commitment. The activities themselves can be whatever the individuals enjoy, although interacting does more good than just watching a movie together. Some studies suggest that doing things they don't usually do but both enjoy for date night provides the greatest benefit to a relationship. Couples who have regular date nights report embracing a wide range of activities, from hiking to taking a cooking class, visiting a gallery, line dancing or riding bikes.

Date night nurtures the bonds that turn an original "I do" into "I still do."

Just try it

When researchers at Stony Brook University, Rutgers and Albert Einstein College of Medicine teamed up to discover why love endures, they compared brain images of long-term married couples who say they're still in love with those of couples in the new, "madly-in-love" phase. Among other things, they found "highly similar" brain activity in parts of the brain tied to reward, motivation and desire. The findings were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience earlier this year.

They concluded that just going out doesn't do it. Finding new things to do that both enjoy, adding "novelty" to the relationship, fans the flames, researcher Arthur Aron, professor of social psychology at Stony Brook, told the New York Times. When they compared middle-aged couples having "exciting" dates doing new and appealing activities to those who did old standby, though pleasant, activities, the exciting dates won hands down in terms of increasing marital satisfaction. Not conclusive, the researchers said, but suggestive.

With a goal of discovering how date night and together time might improve relationships, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and co-author Jeff Dew, faculty fellow at the marriage project and an assistant professor of family, consumer and human development at Utah State University, reviewed previous research. Their research suggests date nights can improve communication, reintroduce novelty into a relationship that's grown a bit stale, fan romantic love, solidify commitment to each other and defuse stress, which they call one of the biggest threats to a strong marriage.

The data backing the notion that carving out time to be alone together strengthens relationships is so compelling that even churches, organizations and communities promote date nights with everything from affordable deals to classes for couples. For instance, on Oct. 19, authors Ron McMillan and Stephen M.R. Covey are holding a date-night class to teach secrets of happy couples, the suggested $5 donation going to United Way of Utah County.

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