Everything probably looked okay from the outside. My husband and I had been together forever and now shared two children, a mortgage, and the occasional cute social-media exchange. But as tends to happen with relationships at this stage of life, we had gotten so busy with our jobs and kids that we’d stopped making plans to go out together. In fact, I was starting to suspect that we hadn’t even talked in a very long time. My first clue was when people asked how he was doing, I’d have to admit I had no idea.
I leave early in the morning before anyone’s awake, and he gets home from work around 9 p.m., when I’m already asleep. As a result, we often don’t see each other for days. I would squint at his social-media accounts, trying to parse what he was up to like a teenager with a crush. Went out to lunch, eh? But couldn’t find time to run that errand I keep reminding him about, eh? Clearly we were not on a path toward connection.
As a recovering A student, I dealt with my anxiety by doing research, all of which pointed to regular date nights. According to a study by relationship experts Henry Benson, Ph.D., and Steve McKay, Ph.D., married couples who go on dates about once a month are more likely to stay together for ten years or longer than those who rarely go out. I’d heard the old date-night advice before, but now it was scientifically proven. I was sold.
I booked a babysitter so we could get dinner at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant my husband loves. But then she came late, the restaurant turned out to be closed, we bickered about who knows what, and a few hours later we were back in our living room, which looked as if a toy store had exploded in it.
“How did it go?” I asked the babysitter. She barely looked up from her phone to say, “Great.” At that moment our kids popped out of their room, extremely not asleep. “Mommy, Daddy!” We tried again the next month—a delightful evening in which we argued about what movie to see and showed up so late that we had to sit in the front row.
By the third month, I began to develop an unpopular belief I must share, even if in a whisper: Regular date nights might not be worth it. I mean, this campaign of mine added one more thing to the Google calendar. The last thing I needed, in addition to managing work, school, and neighborhood and household logistics, was another thing on my to-do list. (And it was my to-do list it was always on, not his.) I couldn’t help thinking that pizza and a movie on the couch would have felt much more intimate—and cost a lot less. After all, what my husband and I really needed was a zeitgeist shift, and when I talked to other moms, I saw that we weren’t alone. But where to start?
I asked relationships experts and happily married moms to divulge how they and their partners reap the benefits of dates without actually going on them. Here’s their stellar advice.
This is a little habit that doesn’t take any time or planning. All you have to do is pay attention and say something back when your spouse talks to you. “Research shows that responding to your partner’s emotional cues is what keeps bonds strong,” says Sue Johnson, Ph.D., author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. The extra awareness doesn’t have to be a big deal. “A one-sentence love note tucked into a backpack or a ‘thinking of you’ text goes a remarkably long way,” adds Marianne Dainton, Ph.D., professor of communication at La Salle University, in Philadelphia.
Dr. Johnson told me that when my husband comes home in a grumpy mood, what he really wants is attention. So even if I feel flattened by the end of the day, I muster up a smile and a hello. John Gottman, Ph.D., coauthor of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, recommends a six-second kiss every time you see each other after an absence. Six seconds is loooong—try it!
Another subtle way that our partners try to get us to notice them is by commenting on literally anything—a news story, a meme, a relative’s new haircut. Rebecca F., of Durham, North Carolina, says she and her husband do some of their best bonding when they’re engaging in benign gossip about friends and family. She knows that when her husband asks if she saw Cousin Tillie’s wacky Facebook post, he’s asking her to pay attention to him—and so she does.
Saying hello, gossiping, smiling. None of this is hard, and—dare I say it?—it all sounds pretty fun.
The more nonsexual—but affectionate and sensual—physical contact you have, the more comfortable and connected you’ll feel. For most couples, behaviors like cuddling spur deeper feelings of love than verbal expressions (like a muttered “Love you”), according to a recent study from Penn State. Couples therapists call this “no-strings-attached intimacy,” the kind that gives partners the feeling of being courted and cherished without ending up in the bedroom.
Elsie Kagan, of Brooklyn, told me that she and her husband have instituted a tradition of lying down together right after they get their three children to sleep. “Screens, household chores, and distractions are off-limits, and we just check in with each other for a few minutes,” she says. Other moms told me about holding hands with their partner as they walk home from dropping their kids at day care, or giving each other foot rubs while they watch old sitcom reruns.
It’s never going to be like those early, passionate days, and that’s okay. Still, it’s worthwhile remembering what you first liked about each other and what you did together then. Read your old emails. As Dr. Dainton says, “Remember your inside jokes? Use them. Hearing them takes you into a different time or place that isn’t so stressful.” A particularly sweet example: Milda DeVoe, of New York City, and her husband text each other photos of clocks showing their anniversary—10:17. “It always cheers me to know he’s thinking of me at least twice a day,” she says.
Retell the story of how you met to your kids too. It will make them feel more secure to know their parents have a real love story at the core of their relationship—even if they roll their eyes when they hear about it. Personally, I’ve found that looking at old pictures is relationship magic. It’s amusing and only a little wistful to remember those vacations we took when there were just the two of us. And we were so skinny.
I love this tip because when you have children, there is a seemingly endless supply of boring but necessary things you have to do. Like grocery shopping. Jennon Hoffmann, of Chicago, has a brilliant hack for it. Instead of having one spouse stay home with the baby and the other hit the store, all three shop together on Friday nights. Their favorite market has a small walk-up wine bar, so she sips wine and her husband has a beer. “Together we roam each aisle to pick up ingredients for Sunday’s meals, which I don’t cook,” says Hoffmann. Mr. H. playing chef ? That’s a very good touch.
Some couples leave PTA fund-raisers early and grab a drink or a dessert together, or combine parent-teacher conferences with dinner or lunch out. Mary Richardson Graham, of Philadelphia, told me about a nice “day drunk” she and her husband recently shared: “We visited a preschool we were considering and then got lunch at a nearby place. The weather was perfect, we sat outside, and we just kept talking and drinking.”
No shared errands on the calendar for weeks? Talk while the kids are asleep, watching a movie, or distracted in the stroller. All you need are a few moments with each other to chat about something other than logistics, says Dr. Johnson. “Time together as partners first, not parents, is key.”
Rather than trying to shoehorn in dinners out here and there, save your money and energy for a weekend away together. Once, my parents came and watched the kids so my husband and I could take a trip to celebrate our anniversary. “This is so much fun!” we said to each other about 50 times before we’d even gotten off the highway.
Ramsey Hootman, of El Cerrito, California, used to combine weekend jaunts with revisiting her relationship’s birthplace. “My aunt and uncle owned a condo in the town where my husband and I met,” she says. “Whenever we’d get the chance, we’d leave the kids at Grandma’s and hit up our old haunts. Each time, we’d make new memories, so it always seemed both familiar and romantic.”
Making new memories might be one of the best parts of a no-kids mini vacation. Or maybe it’s the sleeping in. Either way, this is a great opportunity to bond with your partner. And if you can’t go big, your relationship can benefit just as much from the very small. All it takes is some attention. Which is free.