- Date nights can improve relationship quality and satisfaction no matter how long a couple has been together.
- People who are motivated to nurture their relationship tend to plan date nights that focus on excitement and self-expansion. Those dates are also linked to increased closeness a week later, research suggests.
- In this context, excitement is subjective and depends on the couple—successful activities range from walking in a new neighborhood to going skydiving.
The phrase “dating” inherently implies that going on dates is a key focus of the early stages of most relationships.
However, many of us find that as our relationships progress, date nights tend to fade into the background and our attention shifts to other life demands (e.g., work, bills, taking care of pets and/or children) and more, but perhaps less intentional, time spent together (e.g., watching T.V., doing chores, zoning out on the couch on our phones).
But research finds—and most clinicians and relationship therapists would agree—that carving out time to go on dates with our partner, no matter how long we’ve been together, tends to have a positive effect on our relationship quality and satisfaction.
While we know there are benefits to going on dates at all stages of our relationship, less is known about what makes a date more (or less) successful. That is, are some activities and plans more likely to make us feel closer and connected to our partner? And are some of us more successful and planning exciting dates than others?
How Successful Couples Plan Dates
In a new study, just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers conducted a two-part study to explore these questions. The authors were particularly interested in whether people who are higher in relationship approach goals (i.e., those of us who are motivated to pursue intimacy and growth in our relationships) would plan dates with their partner that were more exciting.
The researchers focused on the degree to which dates might be considered exciting because, according to the “self-expansion model,” one way to engage and sustain closeness in longer-term relationships is by engaging in exciting, shared leisure activities that promote the broadening of the mind and new perspectives of the self (i.e., self-expansion)
The researchers hypothesized that going on dates that could be considered “exciting,” therefore, may lead to greater feelings of closeness.
Measuring the Excitement of Dates
The first study consisted of 251 participants, the majority (66%) of whom were women. Forty-eight percent of participants were either married or in common law relationships, 45% were exclusively involved with a partner, and 7% were casually dating. The average relationship length was 8 years. Participants ranged from 19 to 87 years old, and were 36.5 years old on average. Most of the sample (77%) were White, 8% were Black, 7% Asian, and 8% were an “other” ethnicity.
Participants in Study One were asked to design a date they might go on with their partner. Afterward, they were asked to rate the extent to which they would describe their imagined date as “exciting,” whether they expected to grow from the date (i.e., “engaging in this date will allow me to gain new perspectives”), how close they expected to feel to their partner as a result of going on this date, as well as how feasible they felt the date was.
The researchers also had three trained coders independently rate the dates based on how exciting they seemed from the perspective of an outsider.
The researchers found that participants who were high in approach relationship goals (i.e., those who are motivated to pursue intimacy and growth in relationships) planned dates that were more exciting based on their self-ratings. The outside coders also tended to view the excitement of the dates similarly to the participants, but the association was only marginal. Participants who scored higher in approach relationship goals also expected to experience more self-expansion and closeness from their hypothetical dates. The authors noted that there were no significant impacts of relationship length, age, or gender.
Measuring Closeness After Dates
The second study was similar to the first, except that rather than simply ask participants about imagined feelings after going on a date they planned, the research team gave participants one week to go on their planned date to see how close they felt to their partner afterward.
This second study consisted of 248 participants who were recruited on-line. They were required to be in a romantic relationship, live close to their partner (i.e., not be in a long-distance relationship), and report that they would see their partner in the next 6 days. The majority (64%) were women, and 55% were either married or in common law relationships, 38% were exclusively involved, and 8% were casually dating their partner. The mean relationship was 8 years. Participants were between 19 and 68 years old and 36.49 years old on average. The majority of the participants (86%) were White, 8% were Black, 3% were Asian, and 3% were an “other” ethnicity. One hundred and fifty of the participants went on their planned date and completed the surveys at time two.
Consistent with Study One, people who scored higher on approach relationship goals planned dates that were rated as more exciting by themselves as well as the outside coders (although, again, this relationship was only marginally significant). Participants higher in approach relationship goals also expected to experience more self-expansion and closeness from their planned dates.
When the authors followed up one week later to see how the participants felt after going on their planned dates, participants high in approach relationship goals reported that their dates were more exciting, which was related with more self-expansion experienced from the date. Greater experienced self-expansion was also associated with greater closeness from engage in the date at time two.
Again there were no noted differences based on relationship length, age or gender.
How to Approach Your Next Date Night
The findings from this study suggest that engaging in exciting and self-expanding activities with a partner tend to be associated with greater feelings of closeness. These findings also show that despite gender, age, or relationship length, those of us who are higher in relationship approach goals (i.e., those of us who are motivated to pursue intimacy and growth in relationships) tend to plan and experience more of these types of dates.
It’s important to note that, while the coders tended to view the dates' level of excitement similarly to the participants, the relationship was only marginal. The researchers noted that, above and beyond what others think to be exciting, what matters is if the people in the relationship feel a date is exciting.
That is, going on a road trip to a small, nearby town could be novel and exciting for one couple, but deemed as commonplace or even boring by another. The authors suggest it seems to be less about what the actual date consists of (whether that be cooking a new recipe together, going on a bike ride in the park, taking dance lessons, or going on a hot air balloon ride) and more about how exciting you and your partner feel about going on that date that will lead to the experience of self-expansion and, as a result, increased closeness.
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Harasymchuk, C., Walker, D. L., Muise, A., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Planning date nights that promote closeness: The roles of relationship goals and self-expansion. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, doi: 10.1177/02654075211000436