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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Why “Date Nights” Matter

Do couples who schedule “date nights” into their busy lives lessen chances of divorce and heighten marital happiness?

A report released Feb. 7 by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia proposes that date nights are an important way for couples to spend some much-needed time by themselves.

Date nights, the report says, “may be particularly valuable” in our times, when culture accents the soul-mate model of marriage. As a result, couples “increasingly expect high levels of intimacy, communication and personal fulfillment” from their relationship.

The report calls attention to date-night initiatives launched this past year in a number of U.S. towns and cities by “a range of civic, corporate and religious organizations.” In one recommendation, the report urges these initiatives to address the need among couples “of limited means” for “free or inexpensive” kinds of date nights.

Titled “The Date Night Opportunity,” the report’s co-authors are W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, and Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow of the project who teaches at Utah State University.

Five Benefits of Date Nights

Five ways date nights may strengthen couples are outlined by the report.

(1) A date night is an opportunity to communicate, and this communication may help couples “deepen their understanding of one another and the relationship.” Communication is important because “individuals continue to change,” and over time, “as they and their relationship develop, they experience new challenges and problems,” Wilcox and Dew point out.

(2) Date nights are valuable for their novelty. Researchers are discovering that “couples who engage in novel activities that are fun, active or otherwise arousing – from hiking to dancing to travel to card games – enjoy higher levels of relationship quality,” the report notes. In this way, couples counteract a tendency to take each other for granted. Couples, it says, “may be particularly likely to benefit from a regular date night if they use it as an opportunity to do more than that old standby: dinner and a movie.” And couples are encouraged to choose activities that represent “a balance of each partner’s interests, rather than tending to do things (novel or not)” that reflect the same partner’s preferences each time.

(3) The report says “date nights may strengthen or rekindle that romantic spark that can be helpful in sustaining the fires of love over the long haul.”

(4) Date nights may strengthen a couple’s sense of commitment to one another. The report says, “Partners who put one another first, who steer clear of other romantic opportunities and who cultivate a strong sense of ‘we-ness’ or togetherness are markedly happier than are less-committed couples.”

(5) Date nights are a way to relieve stress. They allow a couple “to enjoy time with one another apart from the pressing concerns of their ordinary life.” Date nights also may serve couples as an opportunity “to extend emotional support to one another in times of trial.”

Wilcox and Dew wonder if date nights are most beneficial when they focus on fun and engaging activities, and “steer clear of marital challenges or other stressful topics” such as family finances. The authors hope future research addresses this point.

Couple Time Can Decrease Divorce

The report’s subtitle frames a key question, “What does couple time tell us about the potential value of date nights?” By “couple time,” the report simply means the time a couple spends by themselves, talking or sharing an activity.

According to the report, “no nationally representative surveys have questions focusing directly on the impact of date nights.” Thus, the report’s discussion of the five benefits that stem from date nights was based on a survey of literature. However, its discussion of “one-on one couple time” is based on the data in two major surveys.

For Wilcox and Dew, what currently is known from the data about couple time constitutes “the empirical indicator that comes closest to a date night.” The data indicate that “husbands and wives who enjoy high levels of couple time together are markedly less likely to divorce,” the report says.

Is couple time more important for couples with children than for others, since “parenthood is stressful” and “children often limit their parents’ couple time”? Not necessarily. Wilcox and Dew found that “couple time was equally important” for married couples with children and without children.

Nonetheless, they write, couple time, “and by extension date nights,” appears to be “an important resource to new parents seeking to keep the quality of their relationship high amid the joys, stresses and challenges of parenthood.”

It also seems that couple time is important at a time when Americans are “less connected to religious and civic organizations than they were a half-century ago,” the report observes.

Wilcox and Dew think couples “who are less integrated into the local civic or religious fabric of their communities” may “expect more of their relationship” and may depend heavily upon each other “for emotional support, given their relative social disengagement.”

“Couple time seems to foster more stable marriages,” according to “The Date Night Opportunity.” Its authors found that those “who devote time specifically to one another at least once a week are markedly more likely” than others “to enjoy high-quality relationships.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.