The (Marriage) Dating Game / Why spending time as a couple is so important for your relationship

WORDS
Wendy Manwarren Generes; additional reporting by Ashley Hinderman
PUBLISHED
February 2016 in
DallasChild, FortWorthChild, NorthTexasChild
UPDATED
January 25, 2016
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Alex Fergus, 33, and her husband Ryan, 35, have been together for 10 years (married for three and a half). This Dallas pair has always loved going to concerts and baseball games together, but in the last two and a half years, they haven’t been out as a couple much at all. That’s because like a lot of couples with young children (Jane is 2 and Ben turns 1 this month), Alex and Ryan have slipped into a child-centric routine where time out of the house alone has nearly vanished.

“We absolutely know that we need work on dating,” Alex recognizes. “It’s actually one of our New Year’s resolutions.”

Observing regular date nights is hardly newsflash-worthy material. Ask any expert how to keep a marriage healthy, and date night is typically near the top of the list.

“Regular date nights help couples stay more connected and bonded, and they get less irritable with one another,” explains Joyce Kay Hamilton, a marriage counselor and couples therapist in Dallas.

But if you’re like most couples, you read that date nights are important, note it and then ignore it. Not intentionally, of course. In fact, in a recent Glamour magazine survey, 88 percent of couples interviewed said they rarely have date nights.

“We talk about having date nights at home after the kids go to bed,” Alex says, “We prepare some fabulous meal together, put away our phones and just talk. The problem is that we talk about doing this way more than we actually make it happen.”

Finding time to feed, bathe and play with the kids between work schedules can be challenging enough. Hanging out as a couple doesn’t even make the to-do list for lots of couples.

“It’s so simple to slip into a routine of running the household — going to work, maintaining the home and raising the kids, and in the process, we focus on the kids and neglect our marriage,” says Dr. Mary Anne Reed, a marriage counselor who has been practicing in Dallas for more than 25 years. “Couples end up acting more like business partners and forgetting that they’re husband and wife.”

Which is why regular date nights (or days) are essential. Carving out intentional time to nurture a marriage — and each other — keeps romance alive. In fact, according to a study done by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, exclusive couple time may lead to higher quality relationships by fostering higher levels of communication, sexual satisfaction and commitment.
Date nights “remind couples what attracted them to one another in the first place,” Reed explains.

The magic number for how often you should go on a date remains up for debate. Some experts advise doing them once a week, others say twice a month is good, and still others say once a month will suffice. But all experts agree that quality is more important than quantity. They also agree that daily 15- to 20-minute reconnects are key. Reed suggests waking up 30 minutes earlier and sharing a cup of coffee together before the kids wake up, or spending TV-, iPad- and smartphone-free time together after everyone is tucked in for the night. Use this time to offer appreciation (thanking your husband for doing something that’s expected of him, like picking the kids up from school or day care), talk about family news (even if it seems mundane, it’s what keeps a couple in sync), express worries and concerns, bare complaints without criticism, and share dreams about your future.

Hannah Newman, 26, and her husband Chris, 29, college sweethearts who have been married for six years and have a 2-year-old son, Jacob, say they use these check-in minutes daily to discuss everything. The Fort Worth couple utilizes the hour after Chris gets home from work for one-on-one time to talk about their days, discuss any issues or sometimes just to gossip.

And don’t limit communication and romance to these check-ins or date nights. Flirt with each other. Remember that? Compliment one another, call each other by pet names and use emails and texts for something other than asking what’s for dinner or if the dogs have been fed.
This regular and positive communication makes for more meaningful date nights because you get to focus on the relationship, not the minutiae. You get to talk about the things that you talked about when you first started dating, like passions, hopes, current events.

It’s not necessarily about the date, but about the time spent together. Lila Pond, a therapist at Restoration Counseling in Fort Worth, says that in order to make date nights a success, the dates should be simple. Forgo relying on the standard dinner and a movie each week, every two weeks or the once a month you commit to going out. Instead: * take a walk together, * do something you loved doing when you first began your courtship, * try something new together, * put the kids to bed an hour earlier and do date night at home, * meet for lunch, which can feel more illicit and stolen than a contrived evening out. The bottom line: Focus on having fun together no matter what you do.

“Having fun and laughing together is so important,” Hamilton says. And it’s vastly underrated. Without fun, our lives are just one to-do after another. “The key is to bring the joy back into your relationship,” she explains.

Melissa Edwards, 33, certainly understands that. Caring for three kids — Noah, 6, Ellie, 3, and Bennett, who was just born — this working Denton mom barely has time to shower, nevermind bond with her husband, Aaron. To cut down on date night costs, the couple, who has been married for seven years, swaps baby-sitting duties with church friends to take advantage of creative and thoroughly entertaining nights out together, where they get out of their comfort zones and paint canvases or engage in some other crafty affair.

“It’s a fun bonding experience,” Melissa expresses, “and it’s relaxing too.”

According to research, trying something new together activates the brain’s reward system, flooding it with feel-good dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals that are released in the early stages of romantic love.

Not into skydiving? Not to worry. Try doing something active with one another —even just taking a walk together. Moving together is one of the things Robin Marie Lawson, 41, and her husband Eric, 43, credit with saving their marriage. By the Allen couple’s 11th wedding anniversary, date nights had fizzled and the result was two people who saw their relationship drifting apart. But the parents of two sought counseling before dialing a divorce lawyer and were instructed by their therapist to re-instate date nights. They started walking together regularly around Watters Creek and going to comedy clubs on occasion too. Six years later: “[The dates] have become as much a part of our continued work on our marriage as they are just for fun,” Robin says.

The moral of their love story? Never stop dating your spouse. Date nights show a willingness to make the other person a priority by setting aside one-on-one time and working to constantly develop the relationship. Without a doubt, dating benefits a marriage, but studies prove that a happy marriage yields happy, secure kids too. Reed explains that in addition to a secure relationship with their parents, kids need to see their parents working to create a healthy relationship as husband and wife  in order to feel happy and comfortable.

“I tell patients all the time that families, specifically parents, are our first school in relationships.” 
SIDEBAR

A Year of Dating

Here are 12 reasons to add date nights to your calendar — in ink!

Whether you’ve been married a year or 10 years, dating is a ritual you should regularly observe. We wanted to get the ball rolling for you, so we came up with a year of clever — potentially out-of-the-box — ideas for you two to try, one for each month of 2016.

February Spend an evening in Sundance Square in Fort Worth. Start at 2-year-old Bird Café, a split-level restaurant with a 2,300-square-foot patio space overlooking Sundance Square Plaza. Go for the avian art lining the walls, the extensive beer and wine list and the small-plate sharing, like baby back ribs and fries (messy, but who cares — you’re married). After dinner, visit Schakolad Chocolate Factory, a shop that whips up handmade confections. Create a custom box of favorite ganaches, truffles, marzipans or pralines to go. Then head to underground Scat Jazz Lounge (accessible by elevator), hidden in an alley off Fourth Street, for live shows (which start at 9pm on Friday and Saturday nights) and a nightcap.

March Pack a BYOB picnic or buy onsite drinks and fare from local food trucks. And bring blankets and low-profile lawn chairs to one of the 25 outdoor Cool Thursday concerts at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden that start March 17 and run through October 27. Tickets go one sale this month.

Get an early start with brunch at Market + Table, an all-in-one coffee bar, juice bar, breakfast spot and sandwich spot in Fort Worth or Seven Mile Café, a Denton diner housed in a little blue house with an espresso bar. Then head to the movies to take advantage of matinee pricing and fewer film fans (read: Stealing a kiss in the dark won’t become a spectator sport).

April Set sail for a two-hour cruise under the stars on Lake Lewisville on a BYOB boat. During the April 15 cruise, flamenco dancers will perform, Spanish tapas and paella will be provided by Café Madrid, and you can snuggle on oversize bean bag chairs. Cost: $79/person.

Tour the vineyards and sip the wines at some of the lauded nearby wineries such as Granbury’s Barking Rocks Winery and Bluff Dale’s Bluff Dale Vineyards, both an hour or less southwest of Fort Worth. Or go east to Grapevine to visit Cross Timbers Winery and Delaney Vineyards and Winery.

May Take a hike on the challenging, hilly 5.2-mile Cedar Ridge Preserve trail near Dallas, which has intermittent creeks along the way to wade in or just use to cool off. Or try the moderately difficult 14.2-mile Rowlett Creek Nature Preserve loop near Garland. Stroll along 8.3 miles (one way) of the Bluebonnet Trail in Plano. Though it’s a little late in the season (the flowers typically bloom until mid April), you might still see a little color along this healthy walk.

Set sail for a three-hour trip under the stars on Lake Grapevine aboard a wood-masted vessel. Every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the City of Grapevine and the Gaylord Texan Hotel sponsor an impressive fireworks show. No more than three couples permitted on the boat at once. Cost: $95/person

Tour the vineyards and sip the wines at some of the lauded local wineries such as McKinney’s Mitas Hill and Celina’s Carmela Winery, boutique-style Caudalie Crest and award-winning Eden Hill Vineyard.

June Tour the vineyards and sip the wines at some of the lauded local wineries such as Rockwall’s San Martiño Winery and Vineyards (where you can picnic as long as you purchase wine), Canton’s Savannah Winery and Bistro and Athens’ Tara Vineyard & Winery, all less than an hour and 30-minute drive from Dallas. Some vineyards offer tours by appointment only. Be sure to check before you go.

Pack a picnic, buy onsite drinks and fare, or order appetizers, salads and sandwiches from Central Market ahead of taking your blanket and chairs to one of the 16 outdoor concerts in the garden at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden that start June 3. Tickets go one sale March 14 for Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra subscribers and April 4 for everyone else and start at $25/person for lawn seats.

After you’ve sent the kids to sleepovers or Grandma’s for the night, channel your inner Girl Scout and Boy Scout and camp out in the backyard when overnight lows stay in the high 60s and low 70s. Don’t have a tent? Rent one for just $8 from the Outdoor Pursuits Center at the University of North Texas. Make s’mores indoors but enjoy them under the stars, then play classic campfire games like Truth or Dare.

July Spend an early evening at the pool. After other people’s children vacate for dinner and bedtimes and the crowds have dissipated, take a refreshing dip in the fancy Fraternal Order of Eagles Pool in Dallas. Open until 9pm (the fully-stocked bar stays open until midnight), the pool permits bringing your own rafts, food and non-alcoholic beverages, so you can picnic poolside before frolicking in the Olympic-sized pool together. Cost: $7/person.

Pamper yourselves with a side-by-side 55-minute Swedish massages and glasses of champagne in the couples’ room at Perfect Touch Spa in Fort Worth. Or upgrade for $120, and you’ll each get a facial or purifying back treatment too. Cost: $130/couple for just the massage; $250/couple for the massage and facial or back treatment.

August If a romantic getaway just isn’t in the cards this year, give yourselves a taste of Little Italy in Irving. Embark on a one-hour gondola ride on Lake Carolyn and through the Mandalay Canals near the Omni Mandalay Hotel, while you take in the sunset, sip sparkling cider and share desserts like tiramisu, panna cotta, cheesecake or a brownie trifle. Cost: $185/couple.

September Complete a progressive dinner tour, hopping on and off the free vintage McKinney Avenue Trolleys and letting your tastebuds discover the eateries of Uptown and the edge of downtown Dallas. Start with appetizers at Gloria’s Latin Cuisine on Lemmon Street. Get there between 3 and 6pm on Friday to enjoy happy hour and $6 margaritas. After, board your ride for the night and disembark at the corner of McKinney Avenue and Pearl Street to dine at Sambuca, where you get live music and dancing too. Then ride the trolley to the Klyde Warren Park stop, and indulge your sweet tooth with one of the delectable desserts at Lark on the Park.

October Rent one of the tandem bike models (they have two to choose from) at Richardson Bike Mart in Dallas (there are also locations in Richardson and Frisco) and take your new wheels for a spin around White Rock Lake just across the street. Rentals cost $80/day.

Take a hike on the North Shore Trail, a 12-mile, out-and-back trail on the lake near Grapevine that’s moderately difficult. Or opt for the shorter — and easier — River Legacy Parks Trail, an 8.8-mile loop trail that’s suitable for all levels and takes you partially along the Trinity River. Another very short but moderately difficult option is the Sansom Park Trail in Fort Worth, featuring a waterfall along the route. 

Take a hike on the Elm Fork Trail, a 10.6-mile, out-and-back trail near Denton that’s suitable for all levels (and dog-friendly too). Pack a picnic lunch and rest and refuel at Sycamore Bend Park. 

November Count your blessings and give to those less fortunate. Volunteer together on a Saturday at North Texas Food Bank in Dallas. Sort and pack food that will be distributed to food pantries, after-school programs, senior meal programs, soup kitchens, shelters and other facilities throughout the area. Register well in advance online since weekend volunteering opportunities fill up fast.

Volunteer together at the Tarrant County Food Bank for a three-hour shift (or more) any Saturday during the month. Together you’ll sort, inspect and repack food donations for distribution to partner organizations in a 13-county area. Register online in advance.

Volunteer together at Our Daily Bread, a community soup kitchen in Denton. Prepare snack packs on the third Saturday of the month for those who don’t have access to a traditional kitchen. Register online in advance.

December Visit the NorthPark Center in Dallas together. Set a $50 or $100 limit, and split up for an hour to find something thoughtful or fun for your spouse. Reconvene for lunch at Bread Winners Café and Bakery or La Duni Latin Kitchen and Coffee Studio to dine and exchange gifts.

Visit North East Mall in Hurst together. Set a $50 or $100 limit, and split up for an hour to find something thoughtful or fun for your spouse. Reconvene for lunch at Bar Louie to dine and exchange gifts.

Visit the Shops at Highland Village together. Set a $50 or $100 limit, and split up for an hour to find something thoughtful or fun for your spouse. Reconvene for lunch at Patrizio Pizza Pasta & Vino to dine and exchange gifts.

January Make a resolution to learn something new together. Why not take a photography class? Whether you have a fancy DSLR or mostly snap photos with your iPhone, Texas Photo, a company that teaches photography throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, has options. Two-hour classes and safaris take students on location and teach the practical aspects of using the camera such as subject positioning and lighting. Cost: $90/person.


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