"We're apt to fall in love with those who are mysterious and challenging to us." — Helen Fisher

Conventional wisdom holds that the time married couples spend alone together is their happiest time together. Ask a random married couple with kids what parents should do to keep their romance alive, and you’re likely to hear the words, "date night."

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

“Read any advice column about how to keep the spark alive in your marriage,” one marriage therapist advises, “and you'll find date night near the top of the list.”

Once you have children, there are good reasons to carve out time with your spouse away from the kids. Kids introduce a new kind of stress in marriage, and a new set of worries for parents. In fact, having children is widely known to lower happiness—at least until the kids grow up and leave home. For those parents who take on the primary responsibility for children and home, spending time away from home and children is like getting a break from work, so it stands to reason that date nights would be important. In fact, research* indicates that couples that are more satisfied with their marriages spend more time together outside of the home than those who are less satisfied. So date night—the time couples spend alone together—must be the thing that keeps the fire lit.

Perhaps.

Data from the Sloan Center’s Five Hundred Family Study at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC)** tell a slightly different story. Regardless of the division of household and childcare duties, married couples tend to enjoy the time they spend together, both with and without their children. Further, while women’s satisfaction in marriage is correlated with the overall amount of time they spend with their spouses, men’s marital satisfaction is not. But since men want their wives to be happy, they should make sure that date night—going out out alone together—is sacrosanct. Right?

Actually, there may actually be something better.

Unexpectedly, data from that study reveal that the time couples spend alone together is not their highest quality time together. In fact, couples in the Sloan study rated the quality of the time they spent together as a family higher than the time they spent alone together. 

But when comparing all the time individuals spent in their daily lives both with and without spouses, the highest-quality time couples spent together was the kid-free time they spent together with friends. And women who spent more of their "couple time" with friends but without kids were not only more satisfied with their marriages than women who spent more of their "couple time" with their kids, they were also more satisfied than the women who spent more of their "couple time" alone together. 

If we give it a little thought, it’s not hard to imagine why this might be: First, having friends is important. Even married couples that spend a lot of time together can become socially isolated, and not having friends brings along a host of negative outcomes. Second, it's possible that much of the time married couples with children spend alone together is spent talking about "family business." (Who will pick up the kids after school on Tuesday? How are we going to get Johnny to do his homework?) Perhaps even more important, however, the high level of familiarity and predictability spouses provide for each other does not produce many opportunities for them to surprise each other when alone together—and novelty is associated with more intense and positive emotions. Spending time together with other people creates the opportunity for new and different conversations than couples have by themselves.

This kind of novelty drives up dopamine levels. According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, senior research scholar at both the Kinsey Institute and the Aspen Center for Human Development, elevating dopamine levels enhances romantic love. In fact, Fisher, who is also Chemistry.com's chief scientific advisor, and widely known as the most referenced scholar on love, contends that any kind of novelty influences the dopamine system. She even refers to dopamine as, "the natural stimulant that can make you more susceptible to romance." (This is why amusement parks, if you like them, are good places for starting—or rekindling—romances.) 

Through the unpredictable interactions other people provide, not only are couples surprised by their friends, but the novel elements of those conversations can even provoke husbands and wives to say and do things that surprise each other; all of which fans the flames of romance. 

© Pamela Paresky (Amadons at Maru Aspen)
Source: © Pamela Paresky (Amadons at Maru Aspen)

So the next time you and your significant other are planning a “date night,” try coordinating with friends. It turns out “double-date night” could be even better.

* Nielsen, Mark R. “Are all Marriages the Same? Marital Satisfaction of Middle-Class Couples.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2002.

** Zuker, Pamela B. “Working Marriages: The Quality of Marital Interaction, Marital Flow, and Marital Satisfaction.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2005.

Data from both citations above is derived from Schneider, Barbara, and Linda J Waite. The 500 Family Study [1998-2000: United States]. ICPSR04549-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-05-30. http://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR04549.v1

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