At our wedding, my husband and I asked people to write their best piece of marriage advice in our guestbook.
We captured a wide spectrum of wisdom, ranging from “Don’t try to change each other” to “Never eat the last bite of dessert.” The most common piece of advice by far, though, was about having a regular date night.
As our marriage progressed, we clung to the idea of date night.
It took on near mythical status in our minds, endowed with the power to single-handedly keep our relationship thriving through any circumstance. Maintaining a crazy work and travel schedule? Date night. Moving to a new city, buying a house, and finding a job? Date night. Sleep deprived and cranky from having a newborn? Date night.
As we settled into parenthood, though, our date nights got progressively worse. We sat across from each other weekly, casting about for enough conversation topics to get us through the entrée, each desperately hoping the other one wouldn’t order dessert so we could just go home already. At best, it felt like a boring business dinner. At worst, it felt like being married to a stranger.
How had we gone from being each other’s favorite person to a weekly obligation in such a short amount of time?
We needed to reconnect, so we started talking about what made us feel connected and loved. It turned out the things we listed had nothing to do with getting dressed up and sitting across a white tablecloth from each other. Instead, they were small things that were easy to include even during a busy day or season of life.
1. Eating dinner together once a week after the kids go to bed
Twice if we’re feeling ambitious. This is not to be confused with having date night at home. In this scenario you can wear your pajamas, eat takeout, use paper plates, or whatever you need to do to make it easy as opposed to romantic. We put our screens away – and watching Netflix or videos of the kids while we eat doesn’t count.
This is not to say that we necessarily talk to each other the whole time. Togetherness is the goal, not conversation. However, as we started doing this regularly, we were surprised at how much we had to say to each other. It ebbs and flows, of course. Some weeks, we eat in comfortable silence and finish in fifteen minutes. Other times we’ll look up to find we’ve been gabbing for an hour.
Although it felt a bit forced when we started the practice, now we look forward to this low-pressure touchpoint in the middle of our week.
2. Tucking each other in
My 2-year-old has an elaborate bedtime routine consisting of innumerable books, songs, and kisses on specific parts of his body. It makes him feel safe and loved. Similarly, my husband and I have developed our own nighttime ritual.
While not nearly as complex — the whole thing takes five minutes — it’s become an important part of our day. I’m usually ready for bed much earlier than him, but he comes upstairs to sit with me for a few minutes. We lie in bed and laugh about whatever funny new word our son learned that day or talk about what we’re looking forward to tomorrow. It helps us to start winding down together and end the day on a moment of connection.
3. Checking in with each other during the day
Every day one of us will send a simple “I love you” text, or a thank you for taking out the garbage or locating the specific dinosaur shirt our son needed to wear that day. We keep these communications separate from the other, utilitarian requests and reminders about picking up milk on the way home or paying the vet bill.
I’ve found this practice keeps me excited to see my husband’s name pop up on my screen. On a good day it even gives me the same butterflies as when we were first getting to know each other. And, transparently, on our busiest days these texts are the closest we come to a conversation. Virtual contact, though, is better than none at all.
4. Paying each other compliments
Autopilot is one of the greatest thieves of joy, especially when it comes to marriage. Sometimes we’re working so hard to keep our heads above the rising floodwaters of kids, work, and domestic responsibilities that interacting with our partner becomes a place where we try to conserve energy by hitting cruise control. This can be a perilous state if it goes on too long. A great way to snap out of it is by exchanging compliments. Whether it’s praising a standout parenting moment or a good hair day, complimenting forces us to notice each other.
There’s also some research behind this, courtesy of John Gottman, the couples’ psychologist famous for his uncanny ability to predict who would stay together and who would divorce. Gottman discovered the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions. Even more specific, he found the “magic ratio” to be 5 to 1. Meaning that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions. Compliments, then, go far beyond providing a single moment of connection by helping you “bank” positive interactions to keep you on stable ground when a conflict arises.
These days, we haven’t completely banished date night. If we go out, though, it’s because we want to, not because we feel obligated. The result is that it’s more fun when we do, because we’re not betting on one evening to keep our connection alive.
Instead we depend on the cumulative power of small moments of connection to keep the magic alive.