When it comes to marriage problems and solutions, an increasing number of couples are turning to “date night” as a means to prevent a relationship rut and ultimately, keep their marriage/relationship healthy.
The concept behind a date night is straightforward: You create a protected space that will give you and your partner the opportunity to connect (or reconnect) with each other in a fresh way, away from the daily stresses that have invaded your relationship.
But many couples are also finding that date nights aren’t always the magic relationship elixir they hoped for—improving your marriage/relationship by going out on a “date night” takes some planning and creativity.
As a marriage/couples therapist, I’ve seen dates nights succeed and give couples the spark they were hoping for, and unfortunately, I’ve seen date nights flop. Let’s look at the ingredients needed for a successful date night.
5 Reasons Why Date Nights Flop
1. Lack of planning (or its opposite: over-planning).
Successful date nights take some planning—a balanced-flexible approach is best. Too little planning and you end up with the all-too-familiar and maddening: “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” “I don’t care, you choose….” Last-minute, shoddy planning or obsessive over-planning where you expect perfection will only make the date night experience one more stressful obligation on a long to-do list of other obligations.
For example, if you and your partner seem to never have anything to talk about, this is where a little planning and effort can can go a long way. Before the date, write a list of questions you’d like to ask each other that have never been asked (such as: If you won the lottery, what would you change about your life? Which famous people, past or present, would you like to interview and why?); throughout the week accumulate stories and information tidbits that you think might interest each other. In other words, come to the date night with some communication ammunition.
2. Mismatched expectations (or expecting too much).
For over two weeks Lynne had been looking forward to having an intimate dinner with her husband for their anniversary. For her the night represented a “new beginning” that would hopefully undo the staleness that had crept into their marriage over the last couple of years. Her husband Rod was less enthusiastic about the evening. While he saw it as a small step in the right direction, he was cautious and somewhat cynical that one date night would matter much to their struggling marriage.
As you might expect, the date night didn’t go well for Lynne and Rod. Lynne interpreted his lack of excitement as evidence that Rod would rather not be with her, and no one was surprised when an argument broke out in the middle of their date night.
3. Maintaining a stifling relationship-rut mindset
In many ways, a successful date night has more to do with your mindset than with the activities you’re engaged in. All the planning in the world won’t matter if you refuse to nurture an open-curiosity mindset toward each other and the date night experience. One couple tried bowling for the first time and throughout the entire experience, the husband sulked and kept saying, “I knew this was a bad idea.” Obviously, this ruined the evening for his wife.
The true power of a date night requires a sense-of-adventure, a playful attitude, and the willingness to see each other anew. For this to occur you must leave your old, constricting biases about each other and the relationship at home. One way to do this is to make a concerted effort to see and focus on something positive about each other.
4. Staying in your comfort zone
It’s human nature to fall into familiar patterns—our well-worn routines can be emotionally grounding, bring us comfort and allow us to feel safe. But for some couples, an over-reliance on the familiar (never changing your relationship routines) can be stifling and lead to a relationship rut.
Engaging in new experiences with your spouse/partner awakens the pleasure centers of your brain and revitalizes the emotional connection that is so important to a healthy marriage/relationship. Anything (small or large) that diverges from your well-worn routines might be just the thing to awaken your relationship.
Sometimes the best date nights are when you not only surprise each other, but you also surprise yourself.
5. Failing to protect the date night space.
Think of date night as a sacred time that needs protecting from external intrusions as well as problem discussions. During this time, certain topics should be considered off-limits. Bringing up hot-button, stressful issues will only infuse the date night experience with tension and emotional distance.
Some couples plan for this by creating an agreed-upon list of “off limit topics” to be avoided during the date (financial problems, disagreements about parenting, conflicts about whose family to invite for the holidays). This allows for the possibility of a more relaxed energy where you and your partner can let go of the hassles of daily life, enjoy one another and feed the relationship.
Also, it will be important for you and your partner to give each other your undivided attention. That means no texting and cellphone use (except in the case of an emergency, of course). We tend to be so conditioned to checking our email/texts/calls that you may not even realize you’re doing it. But, if your partner has planned for the date night to be special and a means of reconnecting, you can bet s/he will notice it (with dismay). So make an agreement that your mobile communication devices will be with you only in the event of the babysitter needing to reach you.
As you plan your date night, remember the five points above to help increase the likelihood of a meaningful experience. Finally, it’s important to think of your date night as an ongoing journey rather than a one-time event. Too many couples arrange one or two date nights and then prematurely give up because “nothing has changed in the relationship.”
I’d like to share a couples communication resource with you today:
Communication Breakthrough (Click the link to find out more about this couples communication workbook).
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro