Keeping the spark alive in your relationship

Op-ed: Weekly date nights are the gold standard in a marriage, but love letters are not a bad idea.

Flowers and chocolates have their place, but such trappings of love can't sustain a relationship. For that, you've got to put in the hard work. But when? One of the great things about Valentine's Day and anniversaries is that they spur us to set aside thoughtful couple time. The rest of the year, too many distractions interfere. Most of us who are married, working and have kids don't have the time to care for ourselves, much less our marriage. Everything — including exhaustion — seems to get in the way of spending quality time with our partners.

Still, the benefits of "couple time" are immense. A study conducted by researchers at the National Marriage Project found that couples who have "date nights" at least once a week are more committed to their relationships and sexually satisfied, they have better communication with their partners and are less likely to divorce than couples who had less frequent date nights.

Of course, once you carve out time, you then have to decide what to do and where to do it. Here again, the National Marriage Project gives a decent piece of advice: Do something new. Doing the same thing that you always do on your dates may not be enough to reap the benefits of a date. Instead, doing something that is out of the ordinary (though not necessarily extraordinary) is essential to breaking down the boring sameness of our typical routine. Play miniature golf, go for a walk in the park, ballroom dance, or visit a museum. As long as it breaks the typical routine, is fun and active, and is something that both you and your partner enjoy, you may reap the full benefits of your date. After all, what else can help us to remember the start of our relationships than the thoughtful planning of time with our partners?

Speaking as a father to three and an academic who is still in the formative stages of his career, doing something thoughtful and new with my wife one night a week, every week, is a laudable, but unreasonable, goal. Maybe one day, when the kids are old enough to watch themselves, my wife and I will escape from the house together on a regular basis, though I somehow doubt it. But I think I have found another way to communicate to my wife what she means to me and to remind her that I do not take her for granted. I have started to write her love letters.

Writing love letters is a dying art. Very few of my students write love letters or receive them with any level of regularity, they tell me. They instead text message or Facebook their lovers brief notes and receive nearly instantaneous replies. They communicate in the form of a written conversation — not the thoughtful, organized, reflective manner that good love letters have. My research team and I have just begun to look at the benefits of reading love letters, but one of my students, Ashley Sauerwein, has done a study that suggests that the benefits of writing love letters is remarkable.

Ashley found that after writing a love letter, people felt more committed to their romantic partner, more satisfied with their romantic relationship and were in a more positive mood. Something about reflecting thoughtfully on our relationships and communicating our feelings to our lover, makes us feel better about our relationships. Much like the mechanisms that make date nights work, love letters help us to communicate openly and privately about our feelings and break up the monotony of our hurried "I love yous" shouted as we rush out the door.

And the best part is you can work on them whenever you have a few minutes to spare — and look back on them for years to come, long after the memories of date nights and special occasions have faded.

D. Ryan Schurtz is an assistant professor in the psychology department of Stevenson University. His email is dschurtz@stevenson.edu.

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