Reinventing Date Night
Reinventing Date Night
On our fourth date, I stabbed my husband in the heart. Well, OK, it was really around the sternum, and he was wearing protective clothing. We were fencing. I was winning. David retreated off the mat, chuckling in disbelief, and we laughed all the way home.
Fencing is about the furthest thing from what we'd normally do, but after 21 years of marriage, we were looking for ways to "bring novelty" into our relationship. Recent studies have shown that having a regular date night is not enough to get couples out of their non-romantic ruts. According to Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, going on interesting dates is good for a marriage. Dinner at the same old restaurant each week will only bring more ho-hum into an already ho-hum relationship. Instead, Dr. Aron says, you've got to make it a point to try new things.
"Any time a couple does something together, it can be fun. But when it's really exciting, that fun gets associated with the relationship," Dr. Aron says. "When you do exciting things as an individual, it has no impact on your marriage. But when you do things together as a couple, you can't avoid thinking about your partner while it's going on. You get an excited, good feeling when you do these fun things, and yourpartner is associated with it. It's rewarding. And it can be very positive for your marriage."
In other words, when you have fun with your spouse, you begin to think of him as fun. This sounded reasonable. I still love David. But like any couple married for a long time, we were in a routine: Go out with some friends. Catch a movie. Splurge occasionally for a fancy restaurant. Yawn. So much of our conversation was about our kids that I was beginning to wonder what would happen a few years down the road, when we become empty nesters…would we even talk?
That's exactly what many married couples face, says Dr. Aron. "After a while you don't have that much to talk about. Just planning these dates can give you something to discuss." So, armed with the information I'd learned from Dr. Aron, David and I decided to conduct our own dating experiment.
Date 1: The TheaterAt first, it wasn't easy to come up with dates that seemed unusual. I started small: We'd go into New York City, about an hour away from where we live. On a theater website I scored tickets for an off-off-Broadway show. The price? Just apiece. How could we go wrong?
The evening did not start out well. David didn't notice I had gotten dressed up—he was busy being annoyed that, as usual, I was running late. Traffic snarled. I was chatting on about a friend's work situation (which I thought was interesting) when David finished my sentence for me, assuming he knew what I was going to say. I hate that! And I let him know. He snapped back at me for being impatient, and that was the end of conversation.
We didn't speak again until 30 minutes later, when we arrived at dinner. I figured the evening was doomed, and I was so mad I could barely look at him. He cuts me off all the time, I was thinking. Trying to date is a disaster! Then we had a glass of wine. The place we picked was ultra-hip and the food was delicious. After 30 minutes together in this cool space, I was cooler, too. Why was I making such a fuss about him interrupting me? We're in a fun place, and I'm making myself miserable. I slipped my hand in his, and soon we were imagining what kind of party we'd throw there if we could.
He apologized for interrupting me, and as we walked hand in hand to the theater, we saw and heard more interesting people and unusual conversations in 10 minutes than we do in 10 days of our suburban life. Heading home after the show, I realized that the whole evening had passed without us talking about the kids. Instead, all of our senses had been stimulated, especially our sense of touch—so much hand holding turned into arm holding turned into shoulder bumping…well, you get the rest. We were much more tuned in to each other than when we'd left.
Date 2: Going Back in TimeI decided it might be fun to head to the birthplace of our romance. Our first stop in New Haven, Connecticut, was a bookstore-cafe, the scene of many scones and coffees together. We reminisced about times when we'd scoured the cafe's bookshelves, dreaming of exotic vacations and life in the future. By the time we finished our coffee and headed outside, we actually felt like the 20-something couple we were when we first met. The familiar streets held memories at every corner, and I noticed I wasn't burdened with thoughts of what chores awaited at home or what I was cooking for dinner (who knew an afternoon date could be so much fun?). Instead, I remembered how we felt when we lived in that town—that the world was filled with possibility and that everything would be OK if we faced it together. I realized, too, how much we've accomplished as a couple since then—kids, a home, careers. It felt good.
Date 3: Taking on the CoasterI began searching websites and local newspapers and magazines for outings. Remembering that Dr. Aron said we'd also bond by overcoming challenges together, I suggested a trip to our local amusement park, where I'd always been too scared to ride the roller coaster.
"Doing something together that you've always been afraid of can be very positive for the relationship," Dr. Aron counseled, explaining that brain scans have shown that when we first fall in love, a chemical called dopamine is released in our brains, which generally makes us feel good. When you do thrilling and new things, you get that same dopamine release—and if you do them with your partner, you'll associate that giddiness with him.
At the Dragon Coaster the line was long, and I got more and more petrified as I heard the screams and screeching of the cars on the rail. By the time it was our turn, I was hanging on to David's arm.
The car clacked upward and I gripped the safety bar with all my strength. David crossed his arm over mine. The first drop was nothing, but then the track rose again and the next hill was…thrilling! The whole ride lasted less than three minutes, but I loved it! When we got off, I was practically skipping as I ran to see our picture at the kiosk.
My terror as we waited to board the ride charmed David, he said later. Then, my excitement afterward reminded him of the "spark plug" he fell in love with. As for me, I never would have attempted it without him, and it reminded me of how often I rely on him, and the fact that he always holds me up. It was good to remember that.
Each time we tried something (the fencing was next) we came away amused at ourselves and at the situation. We started to notice that the good feelings from the date lingered into the week. We were making new memories, and even a few days later, we were recounting them. When was the last time you said on Thursday, "Wasn't that a great movie last Saturday?" These dates kept us entertained and laughing even days afterward. I was shocked that the experiment was working, and perhaps the most unexpected part was that as we let friends know about our new dating plan, people loved hearing about our adventures.
Even a date that fizzled—joining an amateur astronomy club for a night of stargazing—was fun. I had imagined lying in a grassy field, gazing at stars while an expert explained what we were looking at; instead we stood in a parking lot in the dark with a bunch of people who bounced around a lot of scientific terms. But beforehand we'd gone to dinner in a town we'd only been to once before. As we munched our burgers and fries, David said, "We'd never have come up here before. This has really gotten us out of our rut."
And that was the whole point. It may be coincidence, but we didn't have another fight like we did that first night out for the duration of the experiment. All those good feelings were having a lasting effect. "What lasts is your association of the relationship with positive experiences," Dr. Aron says.
I'm most definitely a believer.
Video: DATE NIGHT CARLTON SENIOR LIVING, SACRAMENTO, CA
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