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.
Dozens if not hundreds of blogs chronicle real date-night experiences. Two years ago, Chattanooga, Tenn., garnered national attention for the growing phenomenon with a free couples event that included speakers and entertainment. Focus on the Family jumped in last year with a challenge to strengthen relationships with date nights throughout November 2011. Cities including Palm Beach, Chicago and Houston have hosted date-night events, local businesses happy to participate with enhancements, like a discounted couples' dinner.
But what makes it work, said Bill Hulterstrom, president and CEO of United Way of Utah County and a strong advocate of date night, is the commitment of a couple themselves.
"In many respects, community problems and family problems are still solved around solid relationships," he said. "...A relationship circle starts with you, then your spouse, then family, then your neighbor."
Getting it right from the very heart of the circle is worth the effort, he said.
Finding a way
The Birds, Tiffany and Nate, instituted date night at their Georgia home while their kids slept, because at the time he was working all day and earning a master's degree at night and they seldom saw each other. They were on a tight budget, so they approached date night like other projects and commitments. They agreed they'd have a date every Friday night for a year and then she wrote about each on her blog, simplymodernmom.com, to keep them accountable.
They took turns coming up with ideas for a month's worth of dates, and stretching themselves to be creative was half the fun. Over the year, they had a mini book club meeting and discussed a book by Seth Godin over hot chocolate. They invited another couple in for late-evening fondue. They placed toothpick markers on a map to show where they'd been together, while dreaming of where they wanted to go. One night, they shared favorite music from their MP3s. When she looks back at the end-of-the-year blog where she listed everything they'd done, Tiffany Bird said it amazed her.
It's possible, she said, to nurture love and date your spouse without breaking the bank.
Karen and Randall Sjoblom of San Diego, have been married 14 years and have four kids, 4 to 11. "We do it because we just would go insane if we didn't spend some time together," she said. "It's nice to be out of the house, not with the kids. As much as I love my kids, sometimes we need time by ourselves."
Sometimes they swap child care with another couple to keep expenses down. Occasionally, they hire a young woman from church to babysit. They usually manage at least two dates a month. The other weeks, they try to spend at least one evening together after the kids are in bed, neither one working or cleaning. Going out is typically dessert or dinner and sometimes a movie or a play. She watches for Groupons that would make a good evening out. A recent favorite was bowling, something she said they do not do particularly well, but they do it with a touch of competitiveness and great humor. After, they went to a book store and tried to sell each other on reading their own favorite books.
They talk about work — he's a contract city attorney, she works 10 hours a week in an office — and current events and how they feel about things.
"We knew going in we needed to make sure to make time for each other," she said. "We make sure we spend that time together."
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