Whether you've been married five weeks, five years, or even five decades, date night is a ritual you should regularly observe.
I know. This is hardly a news flash. Read any advice column about how to keep the spark alive in your marriage and you'll find date night near the top of the list.
Yet, if you're like most couples, you'll read it, you'll note it, and then you'll ignore it.
A Redbook survey of readers found that 45 percent of couples "rarely" have date nights. A mere 18 percent said they manage to go out around once a month.
Why the low numbers? I've wondered -- especially since date night is so universally advised. Maybe it's the old-fashioned sound of the term date night that makes the notion seem corny or trivial. Maybe dating and marriage seem like a contradiction in terms.
When I ask couples, "When was the last time you went on a date?" their response speaks volumes:
A few weeks ago we took the kids out for a movie. Does that count?
Oh, yeah, date night... we keep meaning to do that.
Some admit they're waiting for the other to initiate it. Others are in a standoff about who last called the babysitter. Some say that going out in a formal way, without kids, just highlights the fact that they feel disconnected, that they find it discouraging and they therefore avoid it. Many tell me they're simply "too busy."
Still others complain that it costs a small fortune to pay a babysitter, let alone have dinner or see a movie.
Date night is a luxury, they say.
No, I tell them. It's an essential.
Not just for couples with young kids who need a night away from the hubbub, or newlywed couples, or those who are struggling. Date night is an essential because couples in all states and stages need quality one-on-one time.
While date night alone will not guarantee a satisfying marriage (nor will a weekly date pull a foundering marriage back from the brink), date night is an investment in the well-being of your relationship -- one way, among many, to nourish and care for your marriage.
When I see couples in trouble, I often wonder which came first -- the growing estrangement in their relationship or the lack of effort put in to nurture it?
As a client once said: "Date night is cheaper than therapy, much cheaper than divorce, and a whole lot more fun." I couldn't agree more, which is why I regularly suggest date night and make it a priority in my own marriage.
Here are the benefits:
1. It's an Opportunity for Romance
There's a big difference between going out for the evening and going out on a date. Date night is a night out with your sweetheart. It's quick trip back to courtship, as opposed to an ordinary night out of the house.
Date night is a state of mind more than an activity. It's about the meaning you make of your time together, whatever you do. Whether simple or elaborate, eating a sandwich in the park, taking a walk on the beach, going out to the symphony, seeing a movie or just having coffee. Date night says, oh, right, we're a "couple" when too often it can seem that you're simply business partners or roommates or two people running day care.
Date night is a chance to look across the table and see the person you married, the one you fell in love with, not the person who left the bed unmade or forgot to take out the trash.
Unless you're going on a hike together or taking a yoga class, I suggest you dress up. This is a date, after all, a special occasion. Remember when you were first dating? Your favorite old t-shirt with the torn sleeve was not your first choice of attire.
2. It's a Break From "Doing"
Simply put, date night is about connecting with each other, not about getting things done.
Date night offers a needed break from the demands of everyday life. It's a time to set aside your to-do list and focus on each other. To listen. To express affection. To feel close.
While it's important to have business meetings and difficult conversations, date night is not the time for that. Yes, some people say that time away from family or kids is hard to come by and you need to grab any opportunity you have. I say, set the hard work of marriage aside and take time to invest in the good.
To get the most out of date night: turn off your phones! Most of us appreciate having our loved one's undivided attention.
3. It's About Fun
Date night is an opportunity to have some fun together.
Unless you find baskets of unfolded laundry to be an aphrodisiac or your idea of a sweet time together is catching up on your bills, plan something fun.
While you're at it, try something new. New experiences activate the brain's reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine, what I think of as "feel good" brain chemistry. These same brain circuits are the ones that "light up" in the early stages of romantic love.
Researchers believe that novelty plays a role in keeping the romantic spark alive. In an experiment with long-married couples, those who were instructed to do something unfamiliar and exciting rather than their usual date night fare showed a significant increase in marital satisfaction and feelings of love.
Not into skydiving? No need to worry.
Try a new restaurant, go to the opera, or just turn on some music and dance.
4. It's a Show of Commitment
Date night shows a willingness to make the other person and your relationship a priority by setting aside special time.
Back when we had young kids, just the effort of carving out time, arranging for childcare, setting aside all other obligations meant to both of us that our couple-ness was important, that our marriage was worth prioritizing. The fact that my husband was the one who arranged for the babysitter made it all the more sweet, feeling, each time, like a generous gift.
When couples make the effort to spend time together and to continue developing their relationship, no matter what's going on in their every day life, they are more likely to grow closer, rather than apart. Research has shown that those who have "couple time" at least weekly are 3.5 times more likely to report being "very happy" in their marriages, compared with those spending less alone time with their mates.
Remember: It's not what you do, it's the spirit you bring to it. Sometimes our date night consisted of putting the kids to bed and then sitting in the back yard on lawn chairs watching for shooting stars.
In the midst of many grueling months of chemotherapy, a friend posted this on Facebook: Jillian is now halfway through treatment. She felt surprisingly good last Saturday night -- so good that we decided to celebrate by going out for a long candlelight dinner. Just being out together, just the two of us... it's the best medicine there is.
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Photo courtesy of Winifred Reilly