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For many busy couples, especially those with children, date night often becomes a freak act of nature, one that occurs only when work and childcare schedules somehow align. Yet when fun, play, and connection fall to the bottom of a couple’s priority list, it’s a sure recipe for discontent and growing apart.

We say this as relationship experts who have studied what makes marriages work (and fail) for more than three decades.

To begin with, it matters how you define “a date.”

For our purposes, a date is a time when both of you set aside work and home life and spend a set period of time really talking and listening to each other.

A worthwhile date is more than sitting on the couch watching TV together: It’s a special time that you use to connect, to remember that you are more than just housemates or co-parents — you are first and foremost friends and lovers.

The templates that follow are designed for five dates, each one organized around an area that can make or break a romantic partnership, such as trust and commitment, sex, or money. The open-ended and provocative questions are meant to lead you out into some conversational deep water. It’s easy to think we know everything there is to know about our partners, but these questions will help you discover how much there is still to learn — and help you become even closer in the process.

See if you can think of each of these as your first date. Plan them. Anticipate them. Get excited about them. And yes, this is serious and important work — but don’t forget to have fun.

If you like what you read, check out our book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which contains even more templates, as well as exercises to support deeper exploration of these questions.

Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment

There’s no question that committing to another person can be a terrifying prospect. It means putting all your eggs in one basket. There’s no one waiting in the wings if this relationship doesn’t work out. There isn’t a safety net.

If we’re truly committed, we give our person everything we have to offer. That’s a risky decision, but it’s essential. Without this level of commitment, love will not last.

Trust is another vital part of commitment, and it is also a challenge. None of us is without our idiosyncrasies and insecurities. But the more honest we are, the more we can discover that our partner really loves us as we are, not as the idealized version of us that showed up when we first began to date.

Vulnerability creates trust, and trust is the oxygen a relationship needs to breathe. Trust also builds over time, in lots of conversations, like the ones you can have on this date when you ask the questions at right.

Preparation: Define what trust and commitment mean to you. Think about what they looked like in your family of origin. Name the little ways you and your partner show commitment to each other.

Location: Find an elevated location with a great view. This could be a bridge, a hill, a rooftop. Ideally there will be a bench or other comfortable spot where you can sit while talking through open-ended questions.

If you can, make it a place that’s meaningful to you — at the top of the steps of a library where you met, or in a state park where you first hiked together. Wherever you are, be sure it’s quiet enough to have an honest conversation.

If you choose to have this date at home, you might take turns being blindfolded while your partner leads you around the house. It’s a great opportunity to practice clear communication (“you’re about to go through a doorway”) as well as trust.

Open-ended questions to ask your partner:

  • How did your parents show their commitment — or lack of commitment — to each other? How do you think their example influences our relationship?
  • What does trust mean to you?
  • Think about a time when you didn’t feel you could trust me. What could I have done to fix the situation?
  • What do you need from me in order to trust me even more?
  • What do you need from me to show that I’m committed to this relationship?
  • What areas do you think we need to work on to build trust?
  • When it comes to trust and commitment, how are we similar and how are we different? How can we accept these differences?

(For more on trust, see “Why Trust Matters and How to Build More of It“.)

Agree to Disagree: Addressing Conflict

Conflict happens. One of the great myths is that people never disagree, or even discuss difficult and uncomfortable issues, in a “good” relationship. But a relationship doesn’t just bring together two people: It also joins your different habits, personalities, belief systems, and quirks. This can make for a pretty wild party.

If you enter a long-term relationship believing that a lack of conflict is a hallmark for its success, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You’re also missing out on the chance for greater intimacy.

Conflict can bring you closer if you choose to approach it as a way to know your partner better. If you genuinely seek understanding of your partner’s position, you can create deeper connection through any disagreement.

It may seem odd to have a date focused on conflict, but the best time to explore how you’re going to manage it is when you are not in the middle of a heated argument. This date gives you a chance to discuss conflict with a cool head.

Preparation: Spend some time reflecting on how you’ve managed conflict so far in your relationships, and how you would like to manage it going forward.

Location: Go to a place where you can speak privately, ideally a location that feels peaceful to both of you. This could be a favorite park, or a beach, or even your own backyard. An afternoon date may be better than an evening, so that no one lacks energy.

You might also choose to have this date while on a walk around the neighborhood; that way if you do get stuck, you’re still moving, and in the same direction.

Open-ended questions to ask your partner:

  • How was conflict handled in your family growing up?
  • How do you feel about anger? How was it expressed in your family?
  • How can I best support you when you’re feeling angry?
  • How do you like to make up after a disagreement?
  • What do you now understand about me that you didn’t before this conversation?

(Discover how to transform conflict into connection at “4 Ways to Deal With Conflict“.)

Let’s Get It On: Sex and Intimacy

We all want to keep our partnerships passionate. It’s important not to let sex become the last item on a long to-do list, the last obligation you turn to when you’re both exhausted. Still, there are ways to create (and destroy) your connection that take place outside the bedroom.

One of the most concrete ways to ensure you have a great sex life is by talking to each other about sex. This date is about discussing your sex life and creating your own rituals of connection.

Research shows that couples who can talk openly about sex have more of it, and women in such relationships have more orgasms. Talking about sex is a win-win for couples.

Still, even with the knowledge that these conversations create more (and more satisfying) physical intimacy, they can still be difficult. Talking about sex is awkward for the majority of couples, though it gets easier and more comfortable over time and the more you do it. This date is set up to get you started on that path.

Preparation: Reflect on what you want sex and passion to look like in your relationship. What rituals for connection might you create? If talking about sex is difficult for you, be prepared to say so and explore why it’s difficult. There’s no right or wrong way to talk about sex. It starts with being brave enough to say whatever is on your mind.

Location: For this date, plan a candlelit dinner somewhere. This could be at home or in a hidden corner of a public garden. The theme is sex, romance, and intimacy, so if you can, choose a place that’s especially romantic for the two of you. You might do something physical before the date to get you into your body, such as an online dance or yoga class, or a session of stretching together.

Open-ended questions to ask your partner:

  • Think about all the times we’ve had sex. What are some of your favorites? What made those times special?
  • What turns you on?
  • How can I enhance our passion?
  • What’s your favorite way for me to let you know I want to have sex?
  • Where and how do you like to be touched?
  • What’s your favorite time to make love and why? What’s your favorite position?
  • What is something you’ve always wanted to try?
  • How often would you like to have sex?
  • What can I do to make our sex life better?

The Cost of Love: Work and Money

It doesn’t matter whether your bank account is robust or you’re living paycheck to paycheck: Money is one of the top reasons couples fight. Research on a sample of 4,574 couples suggests that, of all the issues married couples argue about, financial arguments are the single best predictor of divorce.

Unless you have an unlimited trust fund, work can’t be separated from the conversation. Work and the pursuit of money can be the third party in a relationship, demanding your time and energy. Balancing work and relationship is fundamental to the success of your partnership.

Still, conflicts over money don’t need to be a make-or-break issue. What matters most is how a couple talks about their financial disagreements. It’s important to remember that the conflict money creates isn’t about numbers — it’s about what money means to each of you.

Money issues are best navigated when you understand the ways your individual histories shape the conversation. What, to each of you, constitutes having enough? This date and these questions will help you increase your understanding of where the other is coming from.

Preparation: Think of three things you appreciate about your partner’s contributions to the wealth of the relationship, both paid and unpaid. Share these three things at the beginning of your date conversation.

Location: This date should cost nothing, or as little as possible. If your income has increased since you met, do something similar to when you had less money. Visit a place that makes you feel comfortable, wealthy, or rich in some way, however you define those things. If you’re staying at home, get your favorite takeout. Dress thoughtfully. Use the nice dishes.

Open-ended questions to ask your partner:

  • What do we have that you feel grateful for? (Learn how genuine appreciation can increase intimacy in your relationship at “How to Build Romance Through Gratitude“.)
  • How do you feel about your professional work now?
  • How do you imagine your work changing in the future?
  • What is your biggest fear around money?
  • What do you need to feel safe in a conversation about how you spend or make money?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 = never, 10 = always), how often do you think about money?
  • How can I help you feel secure when you’re worried about money?
  • What are your hopes and dreams about money?

Play With Me: Fun and Adventure

When is the last time you and your partner tried something new together? When was the last time you went on an adventure? Laughed? Acted silly? If you can’t remember, then you’re in need of a play infusion.

Play is a necessary and vital part of intimate relationships. Yet we often mistakenly think we have to have matching ideas of fun and adventure if the relationship is going to succeed. Of course, it’s fine if you do, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.

The most important thing is to find as many ways as you can to play together, and then support each other in your separate adventures. (For more on this, see “The Power of Play“.)

Preparation: Think about how you like to play and what adventures you’d like to have. Reflect on what play and adventure look like to you, and whether your needs for these experiences are being met. How would you like to play with your partner in the future? What shared adventures would you like to have?

Location: Somewhere you’ve never been before or a familiar place used in a new way. Try the park, the beach, a rooftop, your backyard. Consider climbing a tree and spending your entire date sitting out on a limb.

Pick a beautiful location near your home and create a scavenger hunt to find it, or leave a note telling your partner where to meet you — where you’ll be waiting with a surprise picnic. Try meeting at an atypical time: early morning, middle of the night, or when you would both normally be at work. The point is to go to a place that energizes you. Adventures can happen anywhere.

Open-ended questions to ask your partner:

  • What does play/adventure mean to you?
  • How did you like to play when you were a child?
  • What’s the most fun you’ve had playing in the last few years?
  • How do you think we could have more fun?
  • What’s an adventure story from your past?
  • What’s the most recent adventurous thing you did?
  • What are you most excited about or looking forward to right now?
  • What adventures do you want to have before you die?
  • What’s a one-day adventure you could imagine us having together?

A Few Guidelines for a Good Date

The most important things you can bring to a date are an open heart and mind, an attentive ear, and a true desire and curiosity to connect. These guidelines will also help you stay on track:

Talk a lot. Take along the list of open-ended questions for that particular date topic. These will serve as a guide and compass for your conversation.

Avoid judgment. Don’t be critical, and don’t give advice unless your partner asks for it. Strive to communicate respect, understanding, and empathy. The goal of these conversations isn’t to prove that you’re right and your partner is wrong; it’s to better understand each other.

Drink little (or not at all). Many couples increase their chances of fighting when they drink, so we recommend you limit your alcohol consumption to one drink or less on date night. Alcohol relaxes inhibitions but it also disinhibits aggression — not great for a date. You want to be coherent and truly present for intimate conversations.

Keep a sense of humor. Find the moments of humor. Find the joy, even when it feels difficult. Don’t forget why you fell in love with each other. And most important, don’t forget to laugh.

This article originally appeared as “Date Night” in the December 2020 issue of Experience Life.

Learn More

Enhancing your communication skills is essential for building robust, enduring, and closer relationships with others. You can elevate your ability to connect with others by delving into our vast collection of resources on interpersonal communication.

John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD

John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD are cofounders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, where they conduct research and clinical training for marriage therapists. This article is adapted from Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Workman Publishing, 2019, coauthored with Doug Abrams and Rachel Carson Abrams, MD.

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