After 11 years of marriage, I recently started dating. My husband and I were still happy together, but our relationship had lost a little of its magic. Two kids, the humdrum predictability of married life, and a double dose of 30-something angst can have that effect. I missed the heady days of dating when we would spend hours in soulful conversation gazing into one another's eyes – instead of debating our differences and staring at the TV in companionable silence.
I selected my paramour carefully and found the perfect match. He was surprisingly easy to find. Handsome, witty, and a husband and father himself, he understood my need to escape the constraints of family life for occasional carefree dates. I didn't enlist the help of an online community of married people looking for a lover, but found my date much closer to home. At home, to be precise: I dated my husband. Together we embarked on a six-month dating experiment that was at times ridiculous, often funny, and ultimately responsible for bringing back the magic.
Our dating experiment began when a friend enquired how we were, eliciting a weary monologue about how little time we spent together. As parents to two boys aged three and five, we had perfected a tag-team approach to week-night childcare, earning us two nights 'off' from parental responsibilities each week. While this slick domestic balancing act greatly extended our capacity as parents and made us the envy of our friends, it also left us with little time together as a couple.
The small taste of freedom granted to us by virtue of our nights off also made us realise how much parenthood had curtailed our spontaneity. We still had fun, but we missed such simple grown-up pleasures as impromptu walks to catch a spectacular sunset, or popping out for last orders at the pub. Parenthood had made responsible adults of us and, having met in our teens and married at 21 and 22, we weren't sure what had hit us.
Having children transforms the language and landscape of a relationship, and it's common for cracks to appear when the bride and groom turn into mum and dad. If it hadn't been for my friend's timely question, I might have continued harbouring a silent sense that marriage wasn't turning out quite as expected. Divorce statistics and a recent spate of celebrity infidelities clearly show where such marital malaise can lead. Instead, thankfully, my friend threw down the gauntlet and dared me to date my husband.
"Six months, six dates, what's the best that can happen?" she said, scribbling down the address of a website which she promised would provide everything we needed for six amazing dates. Intrigued, I looked it up. The Big Six Great Date Experiment had me at hello, as they say.
MarriedLife is the brainchild of North Point Ministries, a church based in Atlanta Georgia. The website is disarmingly witty and the video promo could pass for the trailer of a slick TV comedy. Couples worldwide can download the Great Date Experiment material, including a series of worksheets that set the theme for each of the six dates, offer inspiration for what to do and where to go, and even pose conversation starters and cheeky challenges for dating couples. The material is explicitly Christian and thus won't appeal to all, but you don't need to be a Christian, or even married, to benefit from the basic premise, which is that six dates could help take your relationship from fizzling to sizzling.
The theme of our first date was nurturing romance. Over appetisers, we had to answer a series of questions including "What is the best date we've ever been on?" or complete "When we were dating I tried to impress you by...." I was challenged to pat my date on the bottom at least twice before the night was over, and my husband had to slip at least three of a possible eight pet names into our conversation. It was definitely the first time – and possibly the last – that anyone has ever called me "Mamacita".
If pet names and bottom pats aren't your style the Big Six Great Date Experiment could be one big turn-off, but I loved those quirky elements because they ensured we laughed throughout every date. I hadn't been expecting that. In place of the tired silences and stilted conversation I had feared, there was helpless laughter and even snogging.
Actually, there wasn't much snogging, largely due to an unfortunate absence of traffic lights en route to our date locations. Instructions for date number two decreed that my husband should kiss me at every red traffic light until someone beeped to hurry us along. Living in a rural spot with little need for traffic lights meant we couldn't fulfil this task, but we're both looking forward to the next time we drive to the city. Incidentally, on this same date I chickened out of screaming, "My husband is hot!" as instructed by our guidelines, for fear that someone might think he was having a seizure.
Other date highlights include a shopping challenge in which we had 10 minutes to buy each other £1 gifts, and the option to forego dessert and drive somewhere secluded to kiss. Our worksheet warned that the organisers cannot be held responsible for any arrest due to trespassing and/or lewd behaviour that might ensue. Our last date, which involved looking through our wedding album and discussing our memories of the day, included a warning for men: "For this section, carefully consider your answers before speaking. Lie if you have to. God would want you to."
Dating put back into our relationship what the demands of busy lives and parenthood had taken out. Prioritising time alone together above all else, despite the challenges posed by doing so, reminded us of the primary importance of our relationship, and rekindled our desire to nurture it.
It's ironic that the relationship between a couple, traditionally the impetus for any family, can so easily become the thing that garners the least care and attention as the family grows. Just as our parental "nights off" extended our capacity as parents, prioritising our relationship helped us better fulfil our other commitments and responsibilities.
Dating rescued our marriage from the bottom of an ever-growing list of demands on our time and attention. Resurrecting it to its rightful place at the top of that list reminded me of what John Wooden, the famous American basketball coach, once said: "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." Date nights began at breakfast, and a sense of anticipation grew throughout the day. My husband sent me texts before each date; not just the usual perfunctory exchanges of information like, "We're out of cat food." but to tell me how much he was looking forward to our evening. I savoured those digital love notes as much as I treasure the lengthy paper versions he penned when we were dating first time around.
Instead of dwelling on the dull domestic challenge of what to cook for yet another family meal, on date-night afternoons I indulged in lingering glances at the restaurant menu. I ran through outfit possibilities, and revelled in the knowledge that later I would be wearing heels instead of slippers, and drinking aged port instead of a cup of tea. Dating as a married couple felt strangely illicit, like bunking off school or shirking our adult responsibilities instead of being enslaved to domestic drudgery and the predictable routine that can accompany family life.
Dating also felt like a monumental challenge. Booking a restaurant, finding babysitters, and tiring out the children so as to secure an easy exit, are obstacles that the determined dating couple must overcome. One date was subject to an eleventh-hour venue change due to a lackadaisical approach to making reservations, and another was almost called off because of chicken pox. The sheer effort required to co-ordinate a date was overwhelming, but I began to see that as an element of romance. Romeo and Juliet didn't have it easy either, after all.
Committing to write about our experiment here added a sense of obligation which isn't usually a recipe for romance but which encouraged us to persevere when tiredness tempted us to curl up at home. On that basis, I recommend booking babysitters for all six date nights in advance. Another lesson learned is that babysitters are a mum's best friend. But no matter how grateful you are for their service, cooking a three-course dinner for your babysitters, including homemade bread, isn't to be advised if you wish to ensure a stress-free start to your date.
When we first fell in love, we expressed our teenage sentiments in a secret code word. It's inscribed inside our wedding rings, and before our final date my husband availed himself of a packet of radishes to spell out 'our' word on the kitchen counter. Oblivious to his unlikely romantic gesture, I sliced the radishes into the babysitter's salad without ever noticing the fruits of his loving labour. That moment sums up so much of what makes dating difficult for married couples. Practicalities so often prevail over romance, and flamboyant expressions of affection are all too easily sacrificed to the seemingly more pressing needs of other people, be they babies or babysitters.
On our last date, I wore a pair of shoes that I hadn't worn for years. Three days later I tripped over them, abandoned on the floor, and was engulfed with happy memories from our dating lives. They're still there, in anticipation of another date, instead of consigned to the back of the wardrobe. I smile every time I see them. That's what dating does for married couples: it helps make new memories and rekindles older, sometimes long-forgotten, ones.
Last week we went on another date. This time we both brought along a 'friend'. "This is the best date ever," said our son, and his brother agreed. Family dating might well be the future of our Friday nights.
How to romance your spouse
Phillip Hodson, relationship expert and psychologist, has this advice for keeping a long relationship fresh:
Keep touching: You need to do plenty of touching, without this having to lead to sex. You need to hug and hold often enough as a way of demonstrating the continuance of your affection. Note: this is not about foreplay as such – but you'd be surprised how often it pays off later in the day's transactions.
Get rid of the children: Ruthlessly, but politely, use family members to remove children from your presence on a regular basis. With this blessed private time, assess and address your most pressing needs as a couple. It could be sleep. It could be a back rub. It could be a minor row taken to a helpful conclusion. It will probably involve complete and uninterrupted sentences to which you have to readjust linguistically. It might be erotic.
Learn to cook: Looking after your partner's dependency needs is a key to their feeling valued. If you can't cook, learn how to change beds. If that's all too difficult, learn how to say, "I think you are feeling stressed, tell me how I could help reduce it."
Try to be less irritating: You must know your faults. Why not endeavour to be more accommodating? A relationship is a latent war that neither side can afford to win.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is How 'Perfect' Is Your Partner?
The Big Six Great Date Experiment website: www.marriedlifeonline.com/greatdate_np.jsp