Honey, don't forget … it's date night

The Globe and Mail

Angella Dykstra and her husband Matthew have been married nearly 10 years. To keep their romance alive, the Summerland, B.C., couple try to take time out from their busy schedules and their three children to be alone together. But Ms. Dykstra admits their date nights don't always happen - and when they do, they're not the most exciting affairs.

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Their idea of a night out usually involves a casual dinner and a trip to Costco.

"[It's]like, 'Really? Our date consists of going grocery shopping? Maybe we should step it up a notch,' " Ms. Dykstra says.

As sex columnists and relationship experts extol the importance of scheduling quality time alone, some couples are feeling the pressure not only to hold regular date nights, but also to ramp up excitement and romance as well.

The Obamas fuelled couples' date-night anxiety last year when the U.S. President and first lady hopped a private plane for a glamorous evening in New York, complete with sumptuous dinner and a Broadway show. The more mundane outings of average couples paled in comparison.

Now, the film Date Night brings that angst to the big screen, as actors Tina Fey and Steve Carell portray a "boring married couple from New Jersey" who are driven to shake up their regular routine. While the misadventures of the characters are the stuff of Hollywood fancy, their desire to break out of the marital doldrums is something to which real-life couples can relate.

Ms. Dykstra says she and her husband often feel compelled to up the ante when they hear of friends going out for fancy dinners or overnight trips with their spouses on date nights.

"You're always comparing," she says. "If you're having a date night, you think [it]should be time away from regular life."

But, she says, it's not always practical or justifiable to splash out.

Calgary resident Leanne Shirtliffe says that while she and her husband of 10 years don't worry about making their date nights exciting, they do feel pressure to go out together more often. As working parents of five-year-old twins, they manage to catch dinner or a movie together once or twice a month, at best.

"When you hold yourself up to other people ... who are able to get away for luxurious weekends without children, that's when some guilt [comes in]" Ms. Shirtliffe says. "We really owe it to ourselves to do this; it would be good for us; it would probably be good for the kids. But the planning, the logistics, seem insurmountable much of the time."

Booking a babysitter and finding time for an outing can be stressful during a long week of juggling work, business meetings, children's after-school activities and chores.

"Sometimes it is more tempting just to sit on the couch and zone out, as opposed to, like, 'Oh now we have to go and get engaged in conversation with each other,' " Ms. Dykstra says.

Of course, she says, once she and her husband make it out of the house, they always end up enjoying their time together. But getting up the energy to do so can be a drag.

Toronto marriage and family therapist Betty Stockley warns that the concept can backfire when date nights become a mandatory scheduled event. If couples aren't flexible, it can kill all the spontaneity of having fun together.

Besides, she says, it's only natural that other obligations, such as work engagements and family functions, will force the occasional postponement.

"If you're going to do a date night to the death because you have to have one every week, then that becomes a problem in and of itself; that becomes as routine as not doing anything," Ms. Stockley says. "And then resentment builds in one party or the other."

Date nights can also be disastrous when couples go about them with a fatalistic attitude, especially if one person expects the date won't measure up before even stepping out the door, she says.

When a relationship is already in trouble, date nights should not be seen as a quick fix, says marriage and family therapist Marion Goertz of Toronto, noting she would never prescribe them to couples when they first seek her help.

If date nights are forced, "it's sort of like [when]you've got a couple of kids and you're saying, 'Now say you're sorry,' " she says, explaining that the inevitable reaction would be, "You'll hear my words but my heart won't be changed."

It's only when both parties are engaged and willing to participate that she recommends scheduling date nights. When both are on board, she says, those one-to-one moments are vital to maintaining a healthy relationship.

While Ms. Dykstra says she'll settle for those joint trips to Costco, she's excited about her plans with her husband for their ultimate date next month - a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate their 10-year anniversary.

In the meantime, no matter how humdrum, the Dykstras are due for another date night soon.

"Now we're going on week 4 without one," she says. "Here's hoping."

Date dos and don'ts

DO: Keep it simple. "A lot of people ... think date nights have got to be extremely elaborate, and they don't have to be. It doesn't have to be an elegant restaurant. It can be a coffee shop where you sit and talk," marriage and family therapist Betty Stockley says.

DO: Bracket the bad stuff. If you and your spouse haven't spent time alone in a long while, rekindling the intimacy can be awkward. Try starting and ending the evening on a positive note, and bring up serious discussion only after you've had a chance to warm up, says marriage and family therapist Marion Goertz. "End the evening in a way that says: 'You know, I'm glad we did this. These are the things I've always appreciated about you. Thank you for being who you are.'"

DO: Have a "cheat date." Since it can get costly to book a babysitter for the entire night, hire one to take care of the children for a couple of hours while you slip out for an early dinner, says Leanne Shirtliffe, who is going on her 10th year of marriage. That way, the children will be fed and put to bed when you return, and you have the rest of the evening at home together. "It's like two dates for the price of one."

DON'T: Wait too long between dates. "Do it often enough that you don't have a whole backpack of stuff that you need to unload," Ms. Goertz says.

DON'T: Assume it's the end of the world if you miss a date, however. Inflexibility is a surefire way to make date night feel more like a chore than a pleasure, Ms. Stockley says.

DON'T: Make it a group affair: It's a cop-out if you invite other couples to join you on a date night, Ms. Stockley says. "It's an excellent way to avoid each other."

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