Date night: Why doesn’t it happen?

5260627011_41a7ddc6eb_mModern mothers work more hours for pay than they did 50 years ago. They also spend more time with their children. They still sleep a solid 8 hours per night. What’s been lost in the shuffle? A few activities, most notably housekeeping, which I’d say is a good thing given the level of pointless domesticity highlighted in women’s magazines from 1963. Less positively, modern couples spend less time with each other than they did in decades past. In 1975, married parents spent 12.4 hours with each other, without the kids, each week. By 2000, that was down to 9.1 hours.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking “I would kill for 9.1 hours!” Every marriage expert tells couples that time spent together, interacting as adults, is key to maintaining a healthy relationship. And yet the vast majority of couples don’t do it much. I usually cite a survey from Redbook finding that, of its mostly mom readers, 45% say date night happens fairly rarely, and 18% manage once a month.

Sometimes the reason is financial. Going out to eat, or even to a movie, can be expensive, particularly when you add in the cost of sitting. But let’s say that you have a reasonable household income, coming as it does from two reasonably high-earning people. Let’s say you have three small children and — allegedly — full-time childcare. And let’s say (purely hypothetically!) that you managed to go 2+ months last summer without a date night.

How does this happen?

Here’s why. I got sick of planning it. I got sick of figuring out my husband and my schedule, and figuring out which of our sitters could cover an evening. So I just stopped doing it. It was just too much mental load, and I guess my husband, who was used to me doing it, didn’t feel empowered to pick up the slack.

This past fall, though, we went on a reasonable number of weekday date nights. What happened is that we arranged regular sitter coverage for two weeknights per week. At least one is inevitably consumed by deadlines, work events, travel, etc., but the second isn’t always. So it’s available, and my husband and I have met for a quick 7:30 dinner several Tuesday nights. Usually he is the one proposing it. Once the babysitter became a done deal and (even better) a sunk cost, only one moving part has to be nailed down. Since neither of us is coming from home (I’m usually working at the library; he’s coming from work) there’s no temptation to stay put. We don’t really have to plan it days in advance, since the sitter is taken care of. Date night planning can become an email saying “want to meet somewhere?”

I realize not everyone is going to arrange for a regular sitter, though that’s certainly an option. As part of the time makeover projects I’ve been doing, one couple decided to hire their occasional weekend sitter for an every-other-Thursday-night gig. Once they know she’s coming, planning date night becomes less of an ordeal. You may not always be able to find a one-off sitter, but you know there’s a restaurant out there that will take your money if the sitter’s already showing up. Or you can just go make out in your car like teenagers. But if the regular sitter isn’t going to happen, here are some other tips for making date night possible:

Make a big deal about big dates. You know anniversaries are coming (the day you met, the day you got married, the day you got engaged). You also know when both of your birthdays will be happening. That gives you time to plan, rope in an extended relative to sit, or trade off with a neighbor. Hit all five (or four, if you got engaged on your anniversary of meeting, or got engaged on your birthday, or some such) and that will be several big date nights per year, which is something. We’ll be doing an overnight in NYC soon, courtesy hotel frequent guest points, to celebrate one big anniversary, and I’m very much looking forward to that.

Skip the TV one night per week. After the kids go down, people naturally do something to relax: watch TV or a movie, surf the web, read. All are good at their own times, but spending one evening per week enjoying a drink together, or a late dinner or dessert, can help you connect. Sometimes people assume their spouse won’t want to skip TV, or they personally like late night TV, but I’m not saying talk to each other every night. You can still zonk out on the couch 6 out of 7 nights per week. Exactly why is that insufficient? This is more about habit than anything else. As a side note, studies of human happiness find that people enjoy sex far more than watching television.

Look for “date night” in hidden places. Maybe you work somewhat near each other. Can you meet for lunch once a month? Get up before the kids one day a week and enjoy a cup of coffee together. Join a gym with babysitting and work out together. Have meaningful conversations on long car trips when the kids are asleep in the backseat. Take naps together on weekend during a child’s naptime. We once had what felt like a date going shopping at Costco together — with no kids! — on a weekend when Grandma was visiting. Eventually, all of this adds up.

How often do you do date night? What do you usually do?

Photo courtesy flickr user scatto felino



28 Responses to Date night: Why doesn’t it happen?


  1. Generally we want to spend time with our children after work and on weekends, so we don’t do date nights.
    However, every once and a while we’ll meet up in the middle of the day for lunch or getting out of work early. Not now because the baby is so small, but once she’s in daycare we’ll probably go back to doing that occasionally.

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – we also occasionally did date nights at 9pm on Saturday. The kids were in bed, so date night substituted for our TV time (the sitter got to watch instead), not kid time.

  2. Sarah says:

    And how convenient that every-other-Thursday-night just happens to start on Valentine’s Day! A fortuitous beginning if I’ve ever heard one.

    • Laura says:

      @Sarah – it is! Hopefully it is a wonderful date night :)

  3. Emily says:

    We meet for lunch every couple of months to have a kids-free meal together during a week day. We also do date nights out (not quite every month, but at least every other). Sometimes, we’ll just have date night in. After we put the kids to bed, we’ll have a bottle of wine and just spend some time together (watching a movie, listening to music, whatever we feel like doing).

    • Laura says:

      @Emily – the post kid-bedtime dates are the easiest to make happen, but I really think a lot of couples get in the habit of not spending this time together. So good that you are!

  4. Alissa says:

    Excellent suggestions. I agree that the logistical challenges around planning a sitter and the cost of it all is a mental drain and why I don’t plan date nights anymore. Surprisingly my husband arranged our last two date nights (getting sitter included) so that’s been nice. I really should try to do more after the kids go to bed, but since he stays home he usually leaves to go see his friends or I have projects I want to work on. Or other nights we zone in front of the tv. Plus our oldest is starting to go to bed later, which means I am going to be shortly after her. But I need to do better about the big dates. Thanks for the ideas.

    • Laura says:

      @Alissa- I am just stuck on the line that, since he stays home he usually leave to go see his friends after the kids go to bed. This is brilliant. I’m going to start suggesting it to more moms. If your husband is home, and particularly if you’ve been home with the kids all day, LEAVE. Go party. I wondered why the book club I’m joining starts at 7:30…

  5. oilandgarlic says:

    Love those ideas! Simplifying date nights and planning is key. My husband and I might try doing date nights “in” –i.e. at home. Once kids are in bed, we have a themed evening with food/movie such as Mexican food and a Mexican film, etc..

    • Laura says:

      @OilandGarlic – themes! I love it. How creative. We rarely get more creative on in-home nights than choosing a wine that somewhat matches the food.

  6. Ana says:

    Like N&M, we do like to spend time with our kids after work & on weekends since they are in daycare 5 full days a week…when we do go out, we try to do it after they are in bed, or when grandparents are around. I like the idea of “date night in”…we DO hang out after the kids are in bed, but its much more fun if we are deliberate about planning something, vs. just collapsing on the couch! Last year on valentine’s day my husband brought home some nice cheese & chocolate that we enjoyed after the kids were in bed…maybe I should pick something fun up tomorrow!

    • Laura says:

      @Ana- yes, pick up something fun tomorrow. I just got a stupid little card from the grocery store, but I am inordinately proud of it.

      • Ana says:

        I had already gotten a card for him (when I went to pick up the obligatory daycare cards that we were required to send in for all the boys’ classmates—which btw was a PITA for ME to have to address them all last night), but I think I’ll make a stop to the wine&liquor store on the way home for something a little more fun!

  7. Anne Bogel says:

    When I was growing up, my parents had a standing appointment with a babysitter for Saturday nights. Now that I’m an adult, that seems like a really smart idea! (But even as a kid, I knew exactly what to expect on the weekends, and I really liked the sitter. Win-win.)

    My husband and I don’t do Saturday night date nights unless we have to, like for a party or plans with others. But we do do weeknight dates, coffee dates, and lunch dates fairly regularly. I LOVE the idea of having a standing babysitter regularly on weeknights. That’s a great tip.

    • Laura says:

      @Anne- weeknights are good because it’s more possible to find a sitter. I like Saturdays, too, but the people who sit for us tend to have their own plans for Saturday night. Getting someone to come on the weekend becomes like that whole bit from the book The Rules, where you have to ask by Wednesday for a Saturday night date…

  8. ARC says:

    I love the idea of a standing sitter, and somehow hadn’t thought to do it. Biweekly would be just perfect. In fact, I was just talking to hubby about this since he’s going back to work very soon.

    We’re down to one sitter when my parents aren’t at their place here (fall/winter). We’re pretty paranoid about sitters/child care, so that’s a hurdle for us, to find someone we trust.

    We haven’t had date night in 5 months, ie just before the baby was born. Currently the baby isn’t down with the bottle so there’s no date night yet.

    What I miss is having the big girl in all day preschool, which allowed hubby and I to meet for lunch. Now she needs to be picked up right at lunch time. (And not to mention, we always have a Baby tagalong.)

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – does the baby sleep for a few hours at a stretch though? If she goes down at a reasonable hour, you could time date night to after she goes to bed. Then the bottle-refusal becomes less of an issue. But yes, there is much to like about the standing sitter idea. If the sitting is a sunk cost and there regardless, date night becomes much easier. It’s like having childcare for work. You don’t sit there every morning saying, hmm, can I find a sitter to cover while I’m working today, or is it just too much bother?

      • ARC says:

        OMG, can you imagine doing that every morning for work. My head hurts just thinking about it ;)

        The Baby’s sleep is weird right now – once she’s down for the night, it’s cool, but getting her down has been hit or miss. But I assume she’ll work it out soon and get on some kind of schedule.

  9. Shelley says:

    We have been married 32 years, have 3 kids and today will be our 35th Valentine’s Day. We have always had a date night even now when it is just the two of us at home. I think it keeps the spark.There are 2 blogs that have great ideas. FRIDAY WERE IN LOVE( a date every week) and LIFE IN GENERAL (a monthly date pre planned for the year) .
    Laura, I love your site and books.

    • Laura says:

      @Shelley- thanks for the blog recommendations! And congrats on your 35th Valentine’s Day together. I hope it’s a special one!

  10. hush says:

    Sounds like we approach this from a slightly different perspective than other folks who had healthier childhoods than we did. We prioritize date night for our kids’ sake. Let me explain. Date night is a priority around here (and has weekly dedicated sitter coverage) because 1) we’re from families of origin with one awful and one failed marriage, and 2) we’ve gone to marriage counseling where we worked hard to figure out that private couple time needs to be a priority – and our entire family benefits from that. We believe children pick up on the overall mood in the home and the tone set by the parents’ relationship. We each harbor a lot of childhood pain from living with unhappily married parents years ago, and we refuse to pass that legacy along.

    I get that not every marriage needs date night as much as ours does.

    • TG says:

      I love your comment and how your understanding of your marriage affects it. My husband and I come from families with generally happy marriages where kids are “a stage”- his dad spent a majority of nights on the road when he was small, so when his dad was home, he wanted to know his kids AND his wife. My grandparents were married for 66 years and had the last 38 years alone together. I just figure “Our time comes later.”

  11. Cloud says:

    We take couples time seriously… but schedule it sort of haphazardly. We schedule overnight getaways (and now that our youngest is 3- two night getaways!) two or three times a year, thanks to my parents who happily come over and take care of the kids. We do occasional date nights, too, but I find that date lunches work better, either on the weekends with a babysitter or taking a slightly longer lunch break during the week (we work in the same area). And we also have a nearly sacrosanct tradition of doing “Friday night beers”- after the kids are in bed on Friday night, we have a beer or two together and talk, plan the weekend, and/or watch a TV show we’ve recorded. Honestly, of all of the things we do, I think Friday night beers is the one that has been most crucial to the health of our relationship. We’ll talk about issues then, so that they don’t fester. And it doesn’t feel like we’re wasting a date on it- we’re just on our sofa! But the beers and the fact that it is a standing time to talk helps to keep discussions from veering into arguments. With that said, though, we’re going away for two nights this weekend and I’m really looking forward to it!

    • ARC says:

      I keep wanting to steal your Friday Night idea (except for us it would be wine) because it’s exactly what we need. I need to remember to bring this up.

      I am a little bummed that we “reset the clock” on overnight getaways with the new baby. The 3yo would (and has) done fantastically well with my parents overnight otherwise…

    • ARC says:

      Oh, and also, love the idea of a lunch date on the weekend. I bet it would be much easier to get our sitter mid-day than at night (she’s 25ish and has an actual social life…)

      • Laura says:

        @ARC – yes, this has always been a struggle for us. Our sweet spot on sitters is college/grad school young women aged 20-27. But they, incidentally, often like to go out on Saturday nights!

    • We love date afternoons. It sounds boring to those who don’t have babysitting challenges but once I explained to my friends it’s date afternoon or nothing…. they now think it’s a fabulous idea :)

      We also regularly do date night on the couch!

      • Laura says:

        @Marcia- I even like date breakfast! Why not?