Photo Credit: Margaret Renkl
I should state at the outset that I’m a lucky wife. Even after 21 years of marriage, my husband Haywood and I still laugh at the same jokes; share the same values (although it could be argued that I focus a little more on our children’s safety, and he places a slightly higher priority on fun); never run out of things to talk about; and work wholeheartedly toward the same goals. Even when we disagree, we’re always aware that underneath the irritation, we’re wearing the same team jersey—a jersey, by the way, that still looks great by candlelight.
Our idea of a date is to dine at our favorite nearby restaurant, where we invariably order the same appetizer and the same two entrees and the same red wine. Then we try to figure out how we can kill an hour so we don’t get home before our teenager has put his younger brothers to bed. Once, we actually spent that hour window-shopping at Walgreen’s because we needed toothpaste and the store was on the way home.
It’s not that Haywood and I wouldn’t welcome an exotic adventure, or even a night at a state park inn. But we’re card-carrying members of the sandwich generation—squeezed on both ends by the needs of our children and parents—and trying to earn a living, too. Who has time to plan something surprising and fun to do on Saturday night, I thought, when just getting to the neighborhood bistro seems a daunting challenge?
Then I read about new research on the effect of novelty on the long-married brain. The usual dinner-and-a-movie date (much less our dinner-and-a-drugstore date), it turns out, doesn’t serve married couples very well. It’s all well and good to have a chance to reconnect, or at least conduct an uninterrupted conversation, but if what you want from date night is a way to fall in love all over again, Saturday night after Saturday night, the toothpaste aisle at Walgreen’s has nothing to offer you.
But an entirely different kind of date does. According to Arthur Aron, the SUNY professor of social psychology who conducted the research, new experiences flood the brain with dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals that are implicated in early romantic love. For married couples, simply doing new things together—trying a new food, taking a class together, or visiting a new place—can recreate the chemical surges of new love. And when those feelings are associated with and shared by a partner, the dopamine high results in fresh feelings of love.
In other words, your brain chemistry can’t tell the difference between falling in love with someone new and trying something new with someone you love.
In one study of 53 middle-aged couples, for example, Aron gave everyone a questionnaire designed to measure marital satisfaction, and then he divided the subjects into three groups. The couples in one group spent 90 minutes a week doing an activity they considered both pleasant and familiar—the usual dinner or movie date. Couples in the second group spent the same amount of time in activities that were novel to them—dancing, hiking, attending concerts, etc. Couples in the third group got no instructions at all. At the end of 10 weeks, Aron gave them the same questionnaire again, and found that the couples assigned to engage in novel experiences together measured a significantly greater increase in marital happiness than those whose dates were simply pleasant.
New research from the University of Denver also supports the idea that being together just for fun—free of any stress related to family or work or finances—isn’t a luxury. For married couples, it’s a necessity, says Howard Markman, a psychologist who co-directs the university’s Center for Marital and Family Studies: “The more you invest in fun and friendship, the happier the relationship will get over time.”
Unfortunately, marriage in our culture is going in exactly the opposite direction, points out Pennsylvania State University sociologist Paul Amato in his 2007 book, Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing. Amato and his colleagues analyzed national surveys of 2,034 married couples in 1980 and a similar sample of 2,100 in 2000. In the intervening 20 years, those who reported “almost always” engaging in certain leisure activities with their spouses—like attending sporting events or dancing—had dropped significantly across the board.
So, armed with this information about the dying art and absolute necessity of marital fun, I told Haywood we should try taking our date nights up a notch or three. He was all for having more fun, but my first idea for a different kind of outing—a reading by legendary essayist David Sedaris, one of our favorite authors—didn’t begin auspiciously.
“So you want to get dressed up and drive all the way downtown to hear a guy read from a book we could check out of the library?” Haywood asked. To call this a leading question would be a remarkable exercise in understatement, but I did not follow along
“It’s just something a little different, honey,” I said. “It’ll be fun!”
And it was fun. Yes, there was a little stress about the traffic, and some consternation over parking, thanks to simultaneous events at every major downtown venue within four blocks. And yes, we felt a little like imposters, all dressed up in our theater clothes. But once we got settled in our seats, and the lights dimmed, and Sedaris—the closest thing to a rock star the literary world can offer—actually walked up to the podium to read, it was like being drawn into a magic circle. We sat, transfixed and hushed, while Sedaris told us story after story, transporting us far beyond our little three-blocks-from-home comfort zone.
And, this being David Sedaris, we also laughed our heads off. At one point, I looked over at Haywood, and he was doubled over, laughing so hard tears were leaking from the sides of his eyes, and I started to worry that I would be taking him straight to the emergency room for a ruptured disk.
In the end, it was a marvelous date: We held hands on the long walk back to our car, and we held hands all the way home. The whole time, we never stopped smiling. And that quick kiss at the first red light? It lasted until the light turned green, and the guy in the car behind us beeped to get us moving again.