Esther Boykin, Author of 'The Date Deck' Marriage and family therapist, Esther Boykin, discusses her new book, The Date Deck …'cause every couple needs a date night. BY STEVE COOPER
Images courtesy of Esther Boykin
A headshot of licensed marriage and family therapist, Esther Boykin; along with her new book The Date Deck.
“ Sometimes you have to cancel something that seems important in order to remind yourself and your partner that they really are number one.”
MARRIAGE STATS Notable: Esther Boykin is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, wife and mother. She has been working as a private practitioner in Northern Virginia for roughly a decade. Through her work Boykin recognized that love requires the couple's attention—and it doesn't have to feel like you're working at it—which is why she wrote her first book, The Date Deck, a collection of relationship repairs disguised as romance, passion, and play.
 In the book you tell a story right up front about your husband asking you why you're so obsessed, and talk so much about, date nights. Other marriage experts extol the virtues of date night, but you wrote a book on it. Why did you take it to the next level and write a book on date nights?
For me, date night epitomizes the easy simple things couples could be doing to stay connected, to improve communication, to have intimacy, and just generally have better relationships. It's so easy to go out and date. And I know there's lots of things that get in the way and we can talk about that, but for me, that was the underlying piece of the book. You can Google date night ideas all day long and come up with things. I really wanted couples to have not just an idea of what to do for their dates, but why date night actually helps your relationship. That was really the core of my husband's question.
 How often do you and your husband got on dates?
Sometimes we're great and other times we'll hit a slump. I will say it goes back and forth, and for me I like broadening the definition of date night.
I do a lot of my administrative work and business from home, and my husband works from home as well, and we'll get lunch in the middle of the day because we both happen to be at home. Sometimes I have an evening where I'm not seeing clients and he's got a meeting someplace fun and I'll go. So he'll do his meeting and afterwards we'll hang out.
 Now in your book "The Date Deck," you have date ideas broken out into very specific categories, such as Quicky or Budget-Friendly, is their a favorite category for you?
I think my favorite category would probably be the Essential Dates, which sounds super boring.
I totally do these all the time, which I suppose is what makes them essential.
Exactly. For me, dinner and a movie is always easy, but it's also always fun. A lot of people are surprised by my taste in movies which veers toward the average teenage boy. Not a lot of intellectual movies on my roster, but my husband has very different taste, but we both enjoy each other's movies.
Now the secret of that, do you set aside a little bit of time to talk about the movie or to make some sort of connection? I know a lot of people will say that dinner and a movie is not a good date idea because you're—particularly the movie part—stuck in a room that's dark and silent for two hours and there's no real connection happening there.
I absolutely get that. I have two takes on the movie thing. The first being, it's not a terrible date to be stuck in a dark room sitting next to each other. I mean, you can make the most of that. Some snuggling and cuddling and whatever else. The other part is that we do talk about movies. We talk during the movie, which doesn't always work well in the movie theater, but we do talk about the movie afterward. There is a really interesting study that just came out of the University of Rochester where they had couples and divided them into different research groups. Some of the couples were doing, I would say, traditional couple's relationship building skills, communication skills or working on emotional achievement. And then they had a group that, every week, they watched a movie; and they had specific questions they were supposed to discuss afterward. What they found was the couples who went to watch the movie had lowered the divorce rate just as much as a couple that had done the more traditional couple skill building activities. Simply watching a movie and talking about it and thinking about the relationship issues was enough to have a real impact.
 Each date in your book includes a quick review of the date. Why did you include that part?
I was thinking, similar to that study, part of what helps people get the most out of an activity is being prompted to think about it. Sometimes I'll talk about bad habits in relationships and I think the longer people have been together the easier it is to become really mindless; and so there are plenty of couples who have date night every week who are not really reaping the benefits of those dates because it's just something on their to-do list.
 Some of the dates in the book also include the participation of kids, such as doing something artistic. If you were to put a ratio on the importance of dates with versus without kids, how often should you have dates without the kids involvement?
I think the majority of dates need to not include kids. The real goal is about strengthening the couple relationship and making that a priority. It's something that couples struggle with, couples who especially have younger kids. Not to call out my other moms because we struggle--more so than dads do--with really understanding and prioritizing the marriage as couple first is actually vital to the parenting you're able to do. Part of making children a priority in your life, and parenting a priority, is understanding that it matters whether or not you feel close and connected to each other as a couple. And so I think the majority of dates should be without kids, but I also know that if you've got two, three, four or maybe even one little kid and do not have access to family or babysitters, that becomes a barrier to doing things. So I did want to make sure there were some dates in there where you can include your kids if you needed to.
 Some dates throw in some romantic options. In fact you have an entire section on romantic date ideas. Do you think sex or physical intimacy are important for a date to be successful?
I don't. I think a successful date is likely to instigate some physical intimacy at some point, not necessarily at the end of the date. So if you have a great date on Tuesday, the likelihood is that it can have an impact on what happened over the course of the rest of your week. So I don't think it's crucial to the date itself.
I think particularly for couples who are maybe struggling and there's a lot of tension or bickering; sometimes focusing on just having fun together without the pressure of physical intimacy is a nice transition to slowly building yourselves back up to that place where you want to be close, you want to be physically intimate, you want to have a sexual relationship with one another—and so having that balance and being honest about where you are in a relationship is really important.
 You also have an idea about doing a spontaneous date. You mention skipping other engagements, such as going to the gym or perhaps a dentist appointment to go on that date. Since we prioritize what's important to us with our time, where would you rank the importance of date nights to your other daily things going on in your life?
Personally, I would put it at the top. I think one of the challenges for a lot of couples is that cognitively we say that our relationship is the most important thing in our lives, but where we spend our time and energy doesn't really reflect that. That's part of what I wanted to get out of the spontaneous date. Absolutely your dental health matters, but in the grand scheme of life you're not going to look back when you're 85 and go, "I wish I had not missed that one dentist appointment back in 2014." You're going to look back and think about the time you spent with the people that you love. Sometimes you have to cancel something that seems important in order to remind yourself and your partner that they really are number one.