I've always liked Dr. Phil's line, "How much fun are you to live with?" It reminds us that as busy as work and daily life can get for couples and families, it's really important to have regular fun along the way. If we don't, life can become monotonous. When I'm counseling couples and families, I generally always want to check on how much fun they are having. When couples or families are struggling, the fun often stops. Getting regular and spontaneous joy happening helps relationships renew and regenerate.
For couples, date nights are essential. It keeps couples connected in a personal way that goes beyond sharing a household, tasks and parenting. Years ago, University of Washington sociologist, sexologist and researcher Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D, found that two career couples with children are very likely to develop a brother-sister dynamic of two task-sharers if they aren't intentional about re-romanticizing the relationship.
How should date night work?
I like to have committed couples alternate who plans them. Everyone likes to be courted, and I like to get each partner involved in using their own individual ideas and personality in planning dates that would be different and fun. Ideally I'd like to see couples have a date night weekly, but sometimes we have to settle for twice a month. It can help to have a standing date, which makes it more likely to be a habit, such as Saturday night. This way you don't have to negotiate the time with your partner, and you can go ahead and make some plans.
Date nights don't need to be expensive. The primary focus is parallel play, where you can visit with each other as you share a meal and do a fun activity together. A movie is not ideal because you sit in the dark not interacting, unless you share a meal or coffee afterwards and discuss it. A date should take at least 3 hours. Mix it up, and check the local paper for creative ideas that interest you. Consider doing something active together if you are both up for that.
As soon as one date night is done, the other partner needs to make sure to get the next date time secured. This builds positive expectancy, and helps you begin associating your partner with fun, lightness and pleasure again.
There are topics to absolutely avoid on dates. These include: parenting, children, money, in-laws, and any other hot button issues. Remember, this is a date, not a time to problem solve. Help remind each other to stay off the forbidden topics you might normally hide behind. For example, if one of you forgets and brings up children, the other could smile sweetly and ask, "What children? We have children?"
Families also need to have fun together. Get your children or teens rounded up for a family meeting and brainstorm with their ideas. Perhaps they will be interested in a new tradition like a family board game night, movie night, international food night, craft night, etc. Teens may protest and roll their eyes but generally enjoy positive family time as well. You can invite them to have friends join you.
Date nights are not just for couples. Creating one on one time between each parent and child is important connecting time, too. Your child or teen will love having your full attention. Focus on doing something they enjoy and listening. Avoid grilling them about grades.
In families that I work with after a crisis like a death or a divorce, beginning to make plans to have fun together again is hopeful for everyone who remains. It signals that the good times are not all behind us, but are still there for the making.
Planning date night and keeping some couples time sacred makes you a better role model for your children, who will grow up seeing that as normal and desirable. They will likely want to emulate that same pattern in their relationship.
How much fun are you to live with? Hopefully you already are having fun, but if not, it's time to start instigating some this week with those closest to you. You deserve it, and so do they. Life's just too short not to mix some fun in regularly.