Keeping that elusive "spark" alive

I’m out on a date in a summer dress. I admire the dark hair and even features of the man across the table as he carefully studies the menu. The waiter appears and we order drinks, then look back at each other and smile.

He asks about my family. Fine, I think.

I ask about work. Busy. Mmm hmm.

The conversation meanders and flops. I know from experience that I find this guy fun and interesting, but I begin to worry that we won’t be able to land on a good topic. Disappointment creeps into my consciousness.

You know those dates people rave about where they talk for so long, the restaurant closes, and then they talk through ice cream, and then they just walk through the city because they can’t stop talking? This isn’t one of those dates.

What’s wrong here? I wonder. I mean, this is the love of my life, we have a babysitter, and we’re out on the town. Shouldn’t we be dancing on tables or something?

I’ve heard the advice “never stop dating” about a million times. At first I believed it. Then I realized how hard it is to find and pay for a babysitter, and what a bummer it is to drop a bunch of money on a meal out with the person you eat dinner with every night. Plus, bloating from restaurant food. So I wrote it off. I’m a homebody married to a sociable introvert. We do fine with couch dates.

But with our fifth anniversary coming up and my husband telling me more often that we needed to get out together, I decided to give dating a second chance. I thought, if so many people proclaim “never stop dating” as the be all and end all of relationship bliss, we must be doing it wrong. There must be a better way.

Well, there is, actually. And it has to do with brain science.

When you have a new or exciting experience, your brain releases two key chemicals: dopamine, the “pleasure hormone,” and norepinephrine, which increases alertness and arousal. Interestingly, these two chemicals are also present during that euphoric time of early romance, accounting for some of those butterflies and sleepless nights.

Yet, as we dive deeper into a relationship or marriage it’s harder to find that early romance hormone rush.

This is why, as The Anatomy of Love writer Lisa Fritscher explains, dinner at your favorite restaurant every Saturday won’t do it. In order for date night to serve its purpose in marriages—to reignite a flame—we need to take a different approach.

Think: novelty and intense experiences. When you and your partner learn something new together, explore a new place together, or have an adventure together, you have a small surge of some of those in-love hormones, together. Even just going out for dinner with another couple to shake things up or listening to music will do it. Spark reignited.

This isn’t new research. In fact, it’s not even new-to-me research. I’d heard of the active date-night phenomenon years before, but the know-it-all romantic in me discarded it. Why would I try to trick my brain into temporarily re-falling in love with my husband over and over? Our marriage is better than that. It’s the best ever. We really, authentically love each other.

But we could definitely add a little fuel to the old spark. When I look back, we did a lot of low-key dates when we were first getting to know each other, but sprinkled in there were lots of adventures, too. In fact, everything we did together was a bit of an adventure because it was new to us as a couple.

We tried restaurants in hidden pockets of the city, danced together at weddings, spent time laughing with each other’s friends and families. In the dating period of a relationship, doing activities and spending time with other people together are important ways to get to know each other. Getting out there together is not only stimulating, but also teaches you about the other person and about the two of you as a couple. Is there any reason to stop this kind of dating later on? Probably not.

So, I recently decided to test out the research on the biochemistry of date night—because I love performing love experiments on my husband.

Back to that fifth anniversary. We had planned a little weekend getaway without kids to exotic La Crosse, Wisconsin. We stayed in a charming hotel on the river and had two options to fill up our time alone: our usual go-to of reading, walking, and relaxing together, and something new—adventurously exploring the area. We did a little of both. And yes, we needed both.

While we didn’t brave the Mississippi waters in a canoe built for two, we did hike and explore new sites. And that’s when we really started to have fun together. That’s when conversation really flowed. That’s when we started talking about the grand adventure of our life together, getting excited again about the kind of family we are raising and our hopes for the future. And truthfully, that’s what made for the most romantic dinners. That’s what made for the best evenings at that cute hotel. So, we’ll definitely be doing that again—somewhere new and different, of course.

So, I guess I am a believer. It turns out that “never stop dating” means more than I thought it did. It means never stop learning new things together. Never stop having fun together. Never stops growing together. It means keeping the romance alive by living your life as an adventure together. And that sounds like real love to me.