My husband and I once visited a straight-talking marriage counselor named Terry Real who asked us what we did to cherish each other as a couple. “There are 168 hours in a week,” he said. “How many of those do you give directly to your relationship?”
Tom and I looked at each other sheepishly. "Uh, none," we told him.
Real was incensed. “This does your daughter no good,” he said. “Listen, the problem with being child-centric is that the couple becomes threadbare and starts looking like you two! You say that you’re busy, but what you really get is lazy.” He shook his head. “Get a babysitter! It’s a good investment!”
The term ‘date night’ causes many parents to roll their eyes, but a University of Virginia study found that it is, indeed, important. People who built couple time into their schedules at least once a week were over three times more likely to report being “very happy” in their marriages, compared to those who had less quality time together. Wives who had couple time less than once a week, meanwhile, were nearly four times more likely to report above-average levels of “divorce proneness.”
Sex therapist Esther Perel gets incensed when she hears from parents who forsake their relationship for the kids. “They spend their entire weekends on the sidelines of these ridiculous games, cheering their children on when they finally manage to touch a ball,” she says. “This sentimentalization of children has reached a complete apex of folly. There is a total depletion of the importance of the adult relationship.” She tells parents to plan one curfew-free late night every six to eight weeks, in which they “lose control, let themselves go into excess, get high, drink, and dance, which connects with your past. And they do not spend the time talking about the children.”
We started booking a babysitter once a month, but there are ways to do date nights on the cheap as well. Perel advises creating a “family of choice,” friends and neighbors who can trade off watching each other’s children. We create a standing playdate with another family in which we swap hosting for a few hours every other Sunday so at least we have some adult time together once a month.
Many churches and synagogues run parents’ night out programs for their members; various children’s play spaces, YMCAs, and national kid-gym chains offer safe, supervised drop-off evening care for kids often for less money than your average sitter. You get some couple time and your kids enjoy a night racing around with friends.
Terry Real was right: we had gotten lazy. Tom and I soon trained ourselves to think creatively if we encounter even a small pocket of kid-free time. When we have a free hour and a half after we drop our daughter at a birthday party, we impulsively go to a tarot card reader in our Brooklyn neighborhood whose crystal-bedecked storefront we've often passed and wondered about. This, to me, is a can’t-miss: If she is off the mark, you have a laugh. If she hits on something that resonates, as our seer does when she tells Tom that he “likes cilantro and dislikes crowds,” you can feel excitingly spooked. While we wait out another birthday party the following week, we jump on a water taxi that ferries people between our neighborhood in Brooklyn and Manhattan and savor the feeling of bouncing along on the sparkling water.
There are hundreds of ways to get creative and to relish any kid-free time together. We spend an hour in a big bookstore, or go for a brief walk, which a mountain of studies show can immediately lift your mood and reduce stress. Even a thirty-minute stroll can make a huge difference; benefits increase further if you are surrounded by nature, a practice the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Or we grab some bagels and coffee and sit in the park with the newspaper.
“My husband and I like to do kid stuff without the kids,” says my friend Jill. “Zip-lining, go-karts, Pac-Man at the arcade. Sometimes my stomach hurts from laughing.” (One study found that activities that trigger nostalgia can increase feelings of connectedness to your partner.)
My friend John and his wife occasionally tell their bosses that they will be an hour late for work because of a doctor’s appointment, then steal away for a breakfast date after dropping off the kids at school. Breakfast is quicker and less expensive than dinner, and they still make a connection with each other.
Another father I know from my daughter’s soccer class takes this idea even further: he sets aside a few of his vacation days a year as does his wife. Then, while their children are in school, they have a daytime date. “You can fit a lot into six hours,” he says. “A walk in a botanical garden, an art gallery, lunch. One spring, we spent the day at a sketchy carnival and ran around riding the rides and eating bloomin’ onions. Which made us both sort of sick, but we still laugh about that day.”
A cash-strapped friend of mine leaves her kids with her mom once every few months, and she and her husband do what they call Drunken Errands. “We live in a really walkable part of Minneapolis, so we huff down a few drinks and then do what needs to be done,” she says. “We end up giggling and bumping into each other at Target, and sober up by the time we return home. Mostly.” If you’re home, set up the kids with dinner and a video and then have a romantic dinner for two in another room.
Some neuroscientists contend that the best way for couples to bond is to try something new together. Brain scans have shown that when we are confronted by something novel, certain brain areas are activated in anticipation of some sort of reward, including the midbrain, which is flooded with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. (Once the stimulus becomes familiar and the brain learns that no reward is coming, it calms down.) Your novel activity doesn’t need to be paragliding, either – anything different will do.
So we try to be up for anything and to seize any moment to be together, even if it’s brief. Eminent couples counselor John Gottman equates his research findings in the metaphor of a saltshaker: instead of salt, fill it with all the ways you can say yes and sprinkle throughout your daily marital interactions: Yes, that’s a good idea. Yes, I’m on board. Couples who make a practice of doing this, he says, are much more likely to go the distance.
This essay is adapted from Dunn’s book “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids,” published by Little, Brown.