If you’re reading this, you’re probably in a relationship.
Whether dating or married, the statistics agree that people’s date nights are getting crappier and crappier, and it’s hurting their relationships.
My wife and I have been married seven years and had fallen into this trap. If we were going to have a date night that didn’t involve Netflix, she had to organize it all. She’d find a sitter. She’d plan someplace to go. I would show up and grace her with my presence. Eventually I realized (OK, I was helped to realize) this was terrible, and that I should as intentional in dating her now as I was when we first met.
The first step to finding a cure is identifying the problem. For us, it was incredibly meaningful to my wife if I owned setting up date nights. At first, this meant some stumbling. If I’d forget, she’d swoop in and make a plan. But it was better for it to flop while I was getting the hang of it, than for her to own it as a default. So I took it on in full, and it was the best thing for us.
Here are three reasons why our (and maybe your) date nights sucked.
They don’t exist. As a relationship progresses, there’s a marked shift in the frequency and quality of date nights. For those of us who have been married for a while, what used to be dinner reservations at a trendy restaurant has been replaced with House of Cards and Pretzel Crisps. Let’s step it up, people.
A car without an engine isn’t very useful. In fact, the hardest thing on a car is lack of use. Seals corrode, fluids break down, etc. Engines like to be run regularly to stay in tip-top shape. The same is true for your date nights. The fewer date nights you have, the harder they’ll be to get going.
Some of us have more dumb holiday events on the calendar with second cousins than we do with the person we say we love. Fix it. Research says that somewhere between once a week and once a month is best. Set a rhythm. Put it on the calendar. STICK TO IT. Hold yourself accountable.
Your phone hasn’t been thrown down a well. I might be the biggest offender of phone-checking during date night. But being the worst at something has also caused me to notice the negative impacts of it.
“But it’s just a quick glance!” Sure it is. “But I’m really sneaky about it!” Seriously, shut it. Everybody in the restaurant just saw you check your fantasy scores or insta feed. Worst of all, your wife or girlfriend saw it, too.
Leave it in your car, or at least in your pocket. Attentiveness and eye-contact are more important. Time Magazine and Psychology of Popular Media Culture both agree that your phone is giving the middle finger to your date night. It’s not just making you look rude, it’s making you look weak. Matthew Lapierre, assistant professor at the University of Arizona said, “I’m more likely to think my relationship is doomed the more I believe my partner needs that thing. It’s not use; it’s the psychological relationship to that device.”
It’s not just that you’re using your phone too much, it’s that your date thinks you’re dependent on it.
You don’t spend any time or energy on them. For months, or likely years, you’ve stopped dating your partner or spouse. Stuff happens. Hell, life happens. Kids, work, and all the crap you “have to do” can feel like a ceaseless tide. But as a result, this person who forms the most important single relationship in your life has been left on the backburner.
Research is showing that even our brain chemistry is responding to crappy dates. New experiences flood the pleasure receptors of the brain with chemicals like dopamine that are more common early on in a relationship, but they tend to wane as dating becomes more routine.
“We don’t really know what’s going on in the brain, but as you trigger and amp up this reward system in the brain that is associated with romantic love, it’s reasonable to suggest that it’s enabling you to feel more romantic love,” says anthropologist Helen E. Fisher. “You’re altering your brain chemistry.”
If new, shared experiences increase feelings of romance and pleasure, the opposite is also true. One crappy date (or lack thereof) is also setting a downward trajectory for future dates. It’s a slippery slope of relational satisfaction based on our poor quality and quantity of our “quality time.” BUT, one great date gets the dopamine flowing, builds anticipation, and sets the next one up to be even better on a neurological level.
This isn’t easy, but it is absolutely worth it. My wife and I have young children, busy careers, friends, and we still have date night every Monday. Not because we’re special, but because we’ve learned the importance of it the hard way.
It took a little effort to get up and running, but now that I’m working a few weeks out (rather than the week of) it’s exponentially more manageable. There’s a million ways to do it, but I’ve opted to form a Trello board to store date night ideas. I have date night as a recurring shared calendar event that I update with the details each week to keep me organized and so she can see that I’m being intentional about it.
Here are the barriers we’ve hit and how we worked through them.
Not sure what to do? Talk about what each other needs right now. Learn your spouse’s love language. Google “date night ideas” in your city, and try a few you’ve never done before. Ask your date the questions psychologists have found to promote depth and intimacy.
Tight budget? This doesn’t have to cost money. We go for a motorcycle ride, play tennis, take a walk downtown, or have a picnic at a park. Set up a small budget, even $10-$20 enables a casual dinner or some drinks. Your dates don’t have to cost a fortune, but of all the things your household budget should prioritize, a healthy marriage is worth every penny.
Feels like a lot of work to set it all up? Kids have a hard time with you being out? Make it easier on you and your sitter. We realized we didn’t want more time away from our kids—we just wanted more time together. So we put the kids to bed, and the sitter comes at 7pm. It’s a much smaller ask on them, and it also makes our prep for the sitter (preparing dinner, setting up bedtime stuff) much easier.
Hard to find a sitter? Our babysitters are usually people we’re building into, so they often come for dinner, hang with us as a family, and then get time to themselves at our place when we leave. They also don’t charge us, because they’re receiving something from us. If you don’t have people like that, look around. There are often singles or younger people in your circles who’d love to be included in your family. Or try a babysitting service. They’re legit. You’re not bad parents for bringing a stranger into your house. It’s worth it.
Make it feel special. Even if special looks different in different seasons. When we have a newborn, just taking a shower (optional), putting on clothes, and leaving the house for an hour feels special. That counts! As kids get bigger and we gain our sleep-deprived sanity back, put on something a tad nicer, even if you’re doing something casual. Look for nonverbal ways to communicate “I’m excited to be with you.”
I promise you this is worth it. From everything I’ve seen in research and our own marriage, not having regular time together has a price tag I’m unwilling to pay. For a few dollars and a few hours a week, we’ve hit a stride. Our marriage is stronger, healthier, and more fun than it’s been in years.