The best date my husband I had in ages was an evening at the theatre. Actually, what made that date so fun wasn’t the play itself, which was nice enough, but what came after: about to miss our last train, we made a mad dash (me in high heels) across eight city blocks, jumping on board with seconds spare. We giggled all the way home—and still high five about it today.
Turns out, my husband and I stumbled on a truth in dating: it’s the out-of-the-box experiences that draw us closer. These days, when we find our schedules full of carpools, kids’ events, and evening homework-helping marathons, getting away for a date night is a precious commodity. So figuring out how to maximize our dates is crucial. While I’m not looking to recreate the experience of running an eight minute mile in high heels, I am asking: how can we plan meaningful nights away?
According to a growing body of research, all it takes is a little creativity.
In one landmark study, married couples with good marriages were divided into three groups: One group did nothing special. A second group went out to dinner and a movie once a week. A third group went on dates that were outside their comfort zone, such as hiking and skiing. At the end of ten weeks, the results were startling: those couples who’d gone on more novel, stimulating dates reported significantly more happiness with their marriages.
The researcher behind this study, Prof. Arthur Aron of the State University of New York, then designed another study, demanding something a bit more challenging from its subjects. This time, he divided couples into two groups. Each group was given a questionnaire asking them how they felt in their relationship, and whether they felt bored in their marriages. Then what was a truly strange experiment began. One group of married couples was asked to walk back and forth in a room sedately together. The second group was much more challenged: with their hands tied and feet tied together, they had to cooperate in pushing a ball across a room. This was bizarre and difficult but, the couples reported, fun too.
Afterwards, both groups of couples were again asked about levels of boredom and satisfaction in their marriages: those who’d just spent the afternoon pushing a ball back and forth in odd circumstances showed huge increases in levels of satisfaction with their marriages, and were also much more likely to say they loved their spouse, than those who’d merely walked back and forth across a room.
Researchers are trying to understand why shaking up our dates and having more novel experiences might increase our relationship stamina. New experiences trigger our brains to release dopamine and norepinephrine, giving us a feeling of happiness and euphoria. These feel-good chemicals are triggered in our brains both when we first fall in love, and when we participate in exciting activities. Also, dates that ask something more of us help us get to know people in deeper ways. When we’re problem solving together, we’re more likely to see and appreciate sides of people that we might not ordinarily encounter.
Out of the box dates don’t have to be elaborate, or involve outdoor sports, to be meaningful or memorable. Sometimes, merely going places we usually don’t, or trying out new activities can be all it takes to spice up date night. See live music instead of a movie, go to an entirely new neighborhood to eat, or try a weekend afternoon date instead of a nighttime one when you’re tired. If it doesn’t’ work out as you expected, that’s okay! Research shows that date night doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun: even mess-ups can add an element of surprise and help transform a ho-hum date into something more unexpected.
So book a babysitter, get moving, and think outside of the box. Ditch dinner and a movie, and try something new instead. (And please share your most memorable and fun date night memories in the comments section below!)