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Darren Sush Psy.D., BCBA-D
Darren Sush Psy.D., BCBA-D

The New Date Night: Dinner and...Therapy?

Couples Turning To Therapy To Relieve the Stress of a Daunting “Date Night”

The New Date Night: Dinner and a Movie Therapy?

Within my practice, I have the opportunity to work with many couples. Some come into therapy due to issues with communication within their relationship, some are concerned about their children’s future and others just want to make sure that their marriage stays strong. But, the unifying factor with all these couples is the question that I get asked most often following a therapy session.

No, the question is not, “Do you think we will make it?” or “Have you met with anyone else like us before?” The question I am asked most consistently is:

Cayo Espanto Private Island/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Cayo Espanto Private Island/Wikimedia Commons

“What are some good restaurants around here to grab dinner?”

When a couple makes the decision to enter into therapy together, it is usually because there is some problematic aspect of their relationship that they want to improve, and at the same time, another valued aspect of their relationship that they want to hold onto and salvage.

Being in a relationship, especially a long-term relationship, can be challenging. As many couples will attest, love is only one component. Communication, compromise, finances, schedules, physicality, and many more aspects play important roles in keeping a relationship not only together, but strong.

Yes, love is often the underlying factor that makes all the other components worth working on, yet even the most loving relationships can have their struggles.

Parents of children with autism and special needs often find that the standard challenges of a relationship are not only intensified, but, in many cases set aside so that they are able to focus the majority of their effort and energy on the needs of their children. Unfortunately, regardless of whether conventional relationship struggles are exacerbated or undervalued, the mental health, well-being and strength of the couple as a whole, as well as each individual involved, can be significantly impacted.

The Date Night Dilemma

Most couples have heard the advice before about how to keep their relationship strong: schedule a date night! But, as Laura Doyle points out, that can be easier said than done. Just as saying, “eat less” is not really constructive advice to give to someone who is interested in losing weight, “just schedule a date night….in pen!” only scratches the surface for many couples looking to improve their relationship.

When most partners first become a couple, finding time to spend together often comes naturally. However, as responsibilities increase from work, to meetings, to children, many couples find that they must arrange specific times to interact with each other in a positive and fun way. Overtime, especially for parents of children with special needs, even the expectation of scheduling a rendezvous may become hard to achieve.

The prospect of “date night” turns into a glaring and daunting reminder of the couple they no longer are. As opportunities for personal contact as a couple decreases, the impetus to work toward spending time together socially can also decline. Add to that, the worry associated with a child’s safety and security when parents are away, the disruption of family routines, the lack of trustworthy or skilled support to watch the child and the guilt of spending time for yourself, date night can actually take on more of a negative connotation than a positive one.

Diagnosing Date Night

I recently heard a parent of a child with autism mention that before she had children, she had anticipated going on a date night with her husband once a week. Of course, as most people with kids will attest, that was a fairly lofty goal. Yet, while spending time together just as a couple without kids may not be possible each week, this couple had come to realize that they had not had the chance to go on a date together in the four years since the symptoms and behaviors associated with their son’s diagnosis became more apparent.

For many, like this particular couple, a few hours away just for each other seemed out of reach. The responsibilities of their lives, and the concern for their children played a significant role in their lack of opportunity; however, the nature of what a date night entails had almost as strong of an impact in preventing their time together.

You see your partner every day. You sleep in the same house, eat at the same table, use the same bathroom and show affection whenever possible. Yet, with all that time together, for some, these interactions can remain superficial, losing warmth and passion. The expectation of talking to each other without distraction, and without bringing up the needs of the kids, can seem like a daunting prospect. Add the fact that these occasions are often rare (and in many cases fueled with some additional stress and perhaps guilt of leaving your children in the care of another person), there is even more pressure on the night not simply going well, but being a joyous success. As a result, this strain can lead many couples to completely avoid their time together.

Dr. Date Night

So, why should I start keeping a “recommended restaurants” list in my waiting room next to the resource brochures?
Source: Source:

The seemingly more obvious answer for why couples are using their time in therapy as an introduction to an extended date night, is that they already have their time away from the house, as a couple, planned and scheduled. It is much easier, from a logistical perspective, to go out to dinner and spend a few hours without the kids, when you are already out and you have already arranged for childcare. But, I think there is more to it than just that.

Within therapy, there is a professional available to help bolster, moderate, and facilitate interaction, and assist couples in learning and practicing new and supportive strategies for communicating and expressing their thoughts and feelings. The tools couples gain within therapy can help couples interact in a more productive and comfortable manner during their date night.

With date nights occurring so rarely, many couples want to take advantage of their limited time together. They may want to talk, but forget how. They may have a lot to say, but might be worried about spoiling the night with conversations about their responsibilities or challenges with each other. Therapy can provide a safe, sympathetic and constructive environment where couples can express their wants and needs within a relationship, relieving the expectation to tackle each issue while they are in a more social setting.

Just because a couple enters into therapy together, does not necessarily mean that there is an issue with their relationship. What it does mean is that there are items that they wish to work on as a couple. Spending time together can be challenging, and parents often avoid this challenge for what they believe is for the sake of their children. Stress, fear and, very often, guilt can prevent couples from taking time for themselves, or can reduce the enjoyment and appeal of time away. By accessing resources to help facilitate healthy communication and improve their relationship, many couples can feel more comfortable taking advantage of their time together, not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of their entire family.

Dr. Darren Sush, Psy.D., BCBA-D, specializes in therapy for parents of children with autism and special needs. His office is located in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit

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About the Author
Darren Sush Psy.D., BCBA-D

Dr. Darren Sush, Psy.D., BCBA-D, is a licensed clinical psychologist and behavior analyst, who provides individual and couples psychotherapy to parents of children with autism in Los Angeles.

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