It's a Date Night: What Did You Expect?
There may be no activity more frequently recommended in Christian marriage counseling (outside of church attendance) than establishing a regular pattern of date nights for the promotion of emotional and spiritual intimacy.
By the time many couples pick up the phone and call a counselor, the husband and wife have drifted apart, and sometimes can't even remember the last time they truly enjoyed each other's company. Although not always expressed in this way, couples often feel the pressure in their practice of date night to "get back to where we once were---like when we were dating."
These are just a few observations I've made as I provide biblical soul care to married folks who are in various stages of relational turmoil. Whatever the issue is that brings them to the table, there is more often than not a real need to increase the levels of emotional and spiritual connectivity between them.
One way is, of course, re-engaging with each other in a pattern of deliberate, one-on-one date nights with as little threat of interruption as possible. That means no facebooking, texting with friends, or, of course, little ones to chase after. The goal is to create a "safe space" for the married couple to be with each other, enjoying each other's company, engaging in fun or meaningful dialogue, and otherwise being together without the "tyranny of the urgent."
Usually, date nights are a powerful tool in the counselor's arsenal. Convincing couples to set time aside for the investing of emotional capital in their marriage for the good of the family is typically an easy sell, especially if the couple experiences some early success.
But, on ocassion, couples report that the date nights "aren't working." When this happens, one issue that needs to be addressed is one that's common to marital counseling proper, that is, setting reasonable and articulated expectations.
It may seem like a settled matter to some, but from the first session of counseling I hold with any couple, I seek to convince them of the primacy of hope in Christ and his gospel alone for their marriage, rather than any particular tool, intervention, or methodology that we may discuss or employ. This would include, for example, date nights, even if they appear to have been helpful, or the latest best-selling book on marriage, even if it's all the rage in the Christian blogosphere.
The point isn't to diminish anyone's enthusiasm for the counseling process, but to locate it where it belongs: in Christ alone (solus Christus).
If we're honest, Christian folks are as susceptible to marketing strategies and the latest blog checklists (i.e. 101 Steps to a New Marriage) as any other group of people. This may be truer when key components of life, like marriage and family, are in turmoil. While understandable, we need to be aware of these tendencies, so that reasonable expectations can be set of each other, of the counseling process, and the tools we use.
Restored by Grace Alone
Not too infrequently, a couple will share in their first counseling session that they came to us in hopes that we might tell them what they must do in order to "save their marriage." I understand the sentiment. But, here's the trouble: Too often, it's spoken as if something other than trusting the gospel, such as the practice of date nights, or a marriage retreat, or reading a book together, or some other thing they do represents hope for the redemption of their marriage.
Intentional or not, explicit trust in the gospel is not typically the starting point for couples who come to counseling. Instead, the gospel is merely assumed, that is, they may assume that they've got the gospel right, so that their trouble and remedy is to be found somewhere else.
If we listen carefully, we might conclude that couples sometimes sound a little more like the Rich Young Ruler who asked Jesus what he must do in order to be saved (Matt. 19:16-22). The challenge for couples then is to embrace the idea that not only are individuals saved by grace alone, but so are marriages.
Marriage is not a covenant of works, but of grace, therefore, when the relationship struggles, it's not more works that are needed (although this is preceisely what many couples are inclined to seek), but more gospel-motivated grace.
Marriage, as a sanctifying institution established by God, is inextricably linked to this gospel. It points us, as Paul wrote, to the eternal relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32). As individuals enter into union with Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from any mixture of works (Eph. 2:8-9), we might also infer that something similar is true of our marriages.
Consider it this way: When marriages are redeemed and restored from the brink of divorce, we may express thankfulness for the helpful tools that were used in counseling, but the actual object of our praise is Christ, who modeled and is for us the hope that our marriages require.
Troubled marriages, therefore, are restored by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and not according to our works (i.e. date night, journaling, book reading, etc.). Applying these great truths of the faith in a marital context helps us focus our attention on the person and work of Christ, to include his written word (sola Scriptura). It ensures that we aren't investing power to save a marriage in anything other than who Jesus is, and the power of his Spirit moving in and through us, even as we make good and wise use of counseling tools.
Date Night Success
If we take the time to craft a right understanding of the strategies we use in marital counseling, that is, what we should and shouldn't expect from them, we do justice to the process, our marriage, and the gospel. Rather than dampening the enthusiasm we might otherwise feel, we liberate ourselves from over-realized expectations, in favor of a hope that something like a new pattern of date nights can actually deliver.
Here are a few items to consider in terms of expectations whenever you and your spouse move to establish or make use of the date night in marital counseling:
- Date night cannot save your marriage, only the One to whom your marriage points can ultimately do that.
- Expect a well-thought out date night to do what it's actually designed to do, that is, to give you and your spouse an opportunity for free space in which to dialogue, laugh, enjoy a nice meal, etc.
- Don't expect that a successful date night today automatically means a trouble free day tomorrow. Real life picks up where date night ends.
- Do expect that date night will provide opportunity for you to practice other skills you've been learning in counseling, like showing empathy, active listening, and walking out passages of Scripture like Phil. 2:3.
- Don't expect date night to permanently recreate some bygone time, but to assist you in forging a better future in Christ as a "one-flesh" couple.
Join the Discussion
- What thoughts do you have concerning the use of date night to re-establish emotional intimacy?
- How are you tempted to trust in what you do, over what Christ has done, in order to restore intimacy in your marriage?