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The (Marriage) Dating Game

Alex Fergus, 33, and her husband Ryan, 35, have been together for 10 years (married for three and a half). This Dallas pair has always loved going to concerts and baseball games together, but in the last two and a half years, they haven’t been out as a couple much at all. That’s because like a lot of couples with young children (Jane is 2 and Ben turns 1 this month), Alex and Ryan have slipped into a child-centric routine where time out of the house alone has nearly vanished.

“We absolutely know that we need work on dating,” Alex recognizes. “It’s actually one of our New Year’s resolutions.”

Observing regular date nights is hardly newsflash-worthy material. Ask any expert how to keep a marriage healthy, and date night is typically near the top of the list.

“Regular date nights help couples stay more connected and bonded, and they get less irritable with one another,” explains Joyce Kay Hamilton, a marriage counselor and couples therapist in Dallas.

But if you’re like most couples, you read that date nights are important, note it and then ignore it. Not intentionally, of course. In fact, in a recent Glamour magazine survey, 88 percent of couples interviewed said they rarely have date nights.

“We talk about having date nights at home after the kids go to bed,” Alex says, “We prepare some fabulous meal together, put away our phones and just talk. The problem is that we talk about doing this way more than we actually make it happen.”

Finding time to feed, bathe and play with the kids between work schedules can be challenging enough. Hanging out as a couple doesn’t even make the to-do list for lots of couples.

“It’s so simple to slip into a routine of running the household — going to work, maintaining the home and raising the kids, and in the process, we focus on the kids and neglect our marriage,” says Dr. Mary Anne Reed, a marriage counselor who has been practicing in Dallas for more than 25 years. “Couples end up acting more like business partners and forgetting that they’re husband and wife.”

Which is why regular date nights (or days) are essential. Carving out intentional time to nurture a marriage — and each other — keeps romance alive. In fact, according to a study done by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, exclusive couple time may lead to higher quality relationships by fostering higher levels of communication, sexual satisfaction and commitment.
Date nights “remind couples what attracted them to one another in the first place,” Reed explains.

The magic number for how often you should go on a date remains up for debate. Some experts advise doing them once a week, others say twice a month is good, and still others say once a month will suffice. But all experts agree that quality is more important than quantity. They also agree that daily 15- to 20-minute reconnects are key. Reed suggests waking up 30 minutes earlier and sharing a cup of coffee together before the kids wake up, or spending TV-, iPad- and smartphone-free time together after everyone is tucked in for the night. Use this time to offer appreciation (thanking your husband for doing something that’s expected of him, like picking the kids up from school or day care), talk about family news (even if it seems mundane, it’s what keeps a couple in sync), express worries and concerns, bare complaints without criticism, and share dreams about your future.

Hannah Newman, 26, and her husband Chris, 29, college sweethearts who have been married for six years and have a 2-year-old son, Jacob, say they use these check-in minutes daily to discuss everything. The Fort Worth couple utilizes the hour after Chris gets home from work for one-on-one time to talk about their days, discuss any issues or sometimes just to gossip.

And don’t limit communication and romance to these check-ins or date nights. Flirt with each other. Remember that? Compliment one another, call each other by pet names and use emails and texts for something other than asking what’s for dinner or if the dogs have been fed.
This regular and positive communication makes for more meaningful date nights because you get to focus on the relationship, not the minutiae. You get to talk about the things that you talked about when you first started dating, like passions, hopes, current events.

It’s not necessarily about the date, but about the time spent together. Lila Pond, a therapist at Restoration Counseling in Fort Worth, says that in order to make date nights a success, the dates should be simple. Forgo relying on the standard dinner and a movie each week, every two weeks or the once a month you commit to going out. Instead: * take a walk together, * do something you loved doing when you first began your courtship, * try something new together, * put the kids to bed an hour earlier and do date night at home, * meet for lunch, which can feel more illicit and stolen than a contrived evening out. The bottom line: Focus on having fun together no matter what you do.

“Having fun and laughing together is so important,” Hamilton says. And it’s vastly underrated. Without fun, our lives are just one to-do after another. “The key is to bring the joy back into your relationship,” she explains.

Melissa Edwards, 33, certainly understands that. Caring for three kids — Noah, 6, Ellie, 3, and Bennett, who was just born — this working Denton mom barely has time to shower, nevermind bond with her husband, Aaron. To cut down on date night costs, the couple, who has been married for seven years, swaps baby-sitting duties with church friends to take advantage of creative and thoroughly entertaining nights out together, where they get out of their comfort zones and paint canvases or engage in some other crafty affair.

“It’s a fun bonding experience,” Melissa expresses, “and it’s relaxing too.”

According to research, trying something new together activates the brain’s reward system, flooding it with feel-good dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals that are released in the early stages of romantic love.

Not into skydiving? Not to worry. Try doing something active with one another —even just taking a walk together. Moving together is one of the things Robin Marie Lawson, 41, and her husband Eric, 43, credit with saving their marriage. By the Allen couple’s 11th wedding anniversary, date nights had fizzled and the result was two people who saw their relationship drifting apart. But the parents of two sought counseling before dialing a divorce lawyer and were instructed by their therapist to re-instate date nights. They started walking together regularly around Watters Creek and going to comedy clubs on occasion too. Six years later: “[The dates] have become as much a part of our continued work on our marriage as they are just for fun,” Robin says.

The moral of their love story? Never stop dating your spouse. Date nights show a willingness to make the other person a priority by setting aside one-on-one time and working to constantly develop the relationship. Without a doubt, dating benefits a marriage, but studies prove that a happy marriage yields happy, secure kids too. Reed explains that in addition to a secure relationship with their parents, kids need to see their parents working to create a healthy relationship as husband and wife in order to feel happy and comfortable.

“I tell patients all the time that families, specifically parents, are our first school in relationships.”