I’ve always been an advocate of date night… though in the years right after we got married, I always found date night very hard to distinguish from every other night. It was more “hanging out together outside the house, instead of inside the house” than anything else. But these days, with two small kids and two demanding jobs, date night is a big deal. And when we get to the point where we’re snapping at each other over everything, and our relationship feels like one constant logistical negotiation, I know that it’s time to find a sitter and get out.
What’s Wrong With Our Date Nights?
But in recent years, I’ve realized that while we’re following the cultural script date nights to the letter (get a sitter, go to dinner, go to a movie), something about them feels underwhelming. After a long day at the office, or a long day of chasing kids around the house, we often look at each other blankly, and don’t have much to say. It’s not that we don’t love each other, or don’t love to shoot the shit together (breaking news alerts have powered many a conversation over a glass of wine). It’s that when we have a moment off, and it’s just the two of us, we’re far more likely to want to take a nap or binge watch a show. Sitting across the table from each other doesn’t exactly bring us to new depths in our relationship.
All The Married Ladies
But a few months ago, reading the Sunday New York Times at breakfast—which, fun fact, is one of our daily conversation points—I realized what wasn’t working. Stephanie Coontz, my favorite marriage researcher (because, you know, I have the kind of job where I do have a favorite), had written an excellent op-ed piece titled, “For a Better Marriage, Act Like a Single Person.” The article is in part a deep dig into the statistics we often hear about happiness and marital status. And it turns out that the oft repeated chestnut that married people are happier than single people isn’t exactly… true. When you exclude the recently single (by divorce or death) from your numbers, single people are on average more happy than married people. Why is that? Something called “social integration,” which is a fancy word for “having an active social life.”
There are tons of details in the article, but the upshot is this: the more deep friendships we have (outside of our families), the happier and healthier we are. And while marriage can provide emotional and often financial support, these days married couples (particularly more affluent married couples) tend to isolate themselves. We’re far more likely to put on our PJs and engage in some Netflix and chill than head out to a party… or a school board meeting, or church social, or book club brunch, or just have a long chat with a neighbor over the back fence. And all of those activities give us a sense of connectedness that researchers are learning is vital to our well-being. Married couples are encouraged to go on one-on-one date nights, when double dates or social events would be more likely to increase our happiness and bolster our marriage.
We’re Asking Too Much Of Our Marriages
Once upon a time, a marriage was mostly a practical and financial arrangement. And I’m pretty sure none of us want to go back to being auctioned off to a good family connection, complete with a dowery. But these days, we put pressure on our marriages to be everything. They’re about love, finances, and running a household. But they’re also stand-ins for our spiritual life, our community, and all of the other types of fulfillment that our grandmothers looked for other places: church, synagogue, ladies thrift guild, the other young mothers on the block, social organizations, and on and on. And it turns out, one relationship with one person can’t be, well, everything.
And, spoiler, Facebook isn’t actually a community.
Finding More Connection
There is, of course, no single simple fix to this question of community, marriage, and happiness. I consider myself lucky to be in a job where I’m surrounded by a collection of like-minded women everyday IRL and to have lots of local friends who are women business owners. I might not see friends every day, but I frequently run into them on the street, or at an event, or in the park. And that sort of causal interaction is what makes us feel part of a real day-to-day community. Add to that the fact that I’m religious, and joining a synagogue, and Hebrew School for the kids, is on the horizon. (And hey, summer camp.) I’ve also started to focus on the importance of small human interactions. Not everything needs to be deep, but getting off our phones and screens and engaging with other humans throughout the day is important.
But we still live in the age of loneliness, and I’m well aware that I have far fewer social connections than my grandmother did at my age, and I’m suffering the consequences of that. So I have started re-prioritizing my life a bit. While it seems counterintuitive, I’m starting to realize that it’s important to my marriage, and my ongoing happiness, if I miss dinner to go to a PTA meeting. I try to remember that when I travel for a work or social event (or work-social event), I’m doing something that’s good for me… and my family and relationship.
(Double) Date Nights
But I’m also revisiting date night. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting away from your kids now and then is good for your relationship. But it turns out sitting across from each other while passing the bread plate back and forth may not be the key to marital happiness. So I’m trying to vary it up. Our best recent date was to a roller rink, where we were surrounded by people and doing something outside our normal comfort zone. Turns out we had a lot to say to each other over that “omg my legs are so sore” drink after the fact. (And that huge party we had a few weeks later, also at a roller rink, was not so bad either.) But I’m also trying to take every party invitation, or dinner invitation, or double date, and run with it. Because sure, we’re better together. But life is long, and it turns out that we may well be way better together & together & together & together.
And as much as I love Netflix and chill, it may not be the solution to marital happiness. (And note to self: watching Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a good date; it gives you nightmares.)
Do you feel like you have enough social connections outside of your relationship? Do you struggle to connect with people in this age of social media? Do you have community in your life? And do you feel like you’re putting too much pressure on your marriage to be everything?