Married couples need to date too

New research shows that married couples need to date regularly if they want to avoid the divorce courts.
William West | 16 February 2012
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romantic dinner

Busy couples who have given up trying to find time to go out on dates together may be staring down the barrel of divorce, a disturbing new study has found. Couples who rarely go out on dates together are almost twice as likely to divorce than those who find time for each other every day, says The Date Night Opportunity report.

Drawn up by the United States National Marriage Project, which operates out of the University of Virginia, the findings of the report on the impact of regular dating on married couples are profound. Couples, it says, who even find one day a week to go out together have much less chance of winding up in the divorce courts than those who don’t – only 15 percent compared to 25 percent. And couples who have regular date nights score much higher in terms of a range of critical measures, including communication with each other, romantic love and commitment to the relationship. They also tend to carry significantly lower levels of stress.

“Date nights allow couples to focus on their relationship, to share feelings, to engage in romantic activities with one another and to try new things,” says the report. It also suggests that date nights may “strengthen or rekindle that romantic spark” that is often lost with the passing of the years.

Anyone who has been married for any length of time – particularly if they have children – will know how difficult it can be to find the time for a date, let alone to make it a regular event. Many will empathise with the couple in the hit movie, Date Night, who are so determined to take advantage of the few hours they have wrangled to be together that they steal someone else’s restaurant reservation. (My wife and I still talk about the good old days when all our children were playing in the local orchestra, thus freeing us up to go to a restaurant on Friday nights and have our “weekly conversation”.)

In fact, the concept of parents having time for a “date night” is so novel these days in so-called “advanced economies” that it has become something of a cause with some organisations. In the United States date nights are promoted by a growing number of civic, corporate, and religious bodies under the banner of “date-night initiatives”. As the report comments: “From the Date Night Challenge in Palm Beach to Yelp’s Date Night Chicago to the Great Date Night in Chattanooga, these grassroots efforts represent a major new effort to improve the quality and stability of marriages and other romantic relationships in communities across the nation.”

Of course, much of this crusading zeal is a response to today’s preoccupation the concept of “soul-mate marriages” from which couples increasingly expect high levels of “intimacy, communication, and personal fulfilment”. These are the sorts of unions glamorised by Hollywood movies about the perfect romance and the quest for the perfect partner. By contrast, few films celebrate the challenges of conquering the endless demands of ordinary life – household chores like washing, cooking and cleaning or the challenges of 60 hours a week in the workplace. The reason is clear: drudgery does little to enhance a relationship or to promote the sort of spontaneity and fun that good relationships thrive on. Drudgery’s consequences are only too clear in the pages of the Date Night report which notes that between 40 and 50 percent of today’s married couples will dissolve their relationships, with an even higher proportion of cohabiting couples doing the same.

But when couples do put in the effort to regularly break out of their routines and rediscover each other, their relationship improves and the possibility of a marital split recedes. For instance, when a couple has only one date night a week the level of happiness in marriage increases more than 300 per cent for both wives and husbands. The figure is similar for the couple’s level of satisfaction with their personal communication and their level of sexual satisfaction. Their level of commitment also jumps by around 250 percent.

When you think about it, the report is actually confirming what common sense would suggest -- that when couples make the effort to spend time together and to continue developing their relationship, they are more likely to grow closer, rather than apart. This is something that was pointed out to me a long time ago by an old friend, a lawyer who made a point of refusing to handle divorce proceedings. Even though he did not have the benefit of modern research to back up his view, he had tested it in the real world over many years and was fond of telling stories about his experiences.

One of his anecdotes involved an elderly couple who were in their 80s and came to him wanting a divorce. After explaining that he didn’t do divorces, he took the husband aside and asked why, at this stage of life, they were considering separating. The husband confessed that they just didn’t seem to have anything in common any more and had grown apart. My friend responded by suggesting that the husband might want to consider trying a bit harder. He suggested that he take his wife out more to dinners and shows and demonstrate his affection by buying her flowers and so on --– just as he would have done when he was first courting her.

My friend didn’t hear from the couple for a number of years, but finally  the husband came to him to process his wife’s will. When my friend asked why the two had not gone ahead with the divorce, the husband explained that he had taken the lawyer’s advice, that he had started dating his wife again and that they had managed to turn their twilight years into the happiest time of their lives together.

With the encouragement of the latest study on date nights, perhaps more couples will be moved to act on my friend’s common-sense advice.

William West is a Sydney based journalist and the Editor of Perspective magazine.

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