Can date-night deals save your marriage?


John and Clare Seelke of Silver Spring have a lunch date at Ming's Chinese Restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
February 13, 2012

Like many married couples, Howie and Rachel Schaffer know they should go out more. Go out go out, just the two of them. They even set a goal, pledging to arrange at least one date night a month soon after their second son was born four years ago.

Ha ha.

“It’s just really hard to make it happen,” said Rachel, 42, a massage therapist in Takoma Park. The one-a-month goal was routinely ignored in the face of jam-packed family routines, babysitters who are both expensive and elusive and the sheer rush of life with two boys under 10.

But in recent months, the Schaffers have found an unexpected boost to their efforts to have more conversations over a tablecloth you aren’t allowed to color on. Groupon, LivingSocial and other Internet-based dealmakers, with their steep discounts and use-it-or-lose-it deadlines, have helped the Schaffers overcome date-night inertia.

“They’ve definitely got us going out more often, which hasn’t been a net benefit financially but has been beneficial for us as a couple,” said Howie, 43, a management consultant, of the file folder of Internet coupons on his dining room table. “With so many things keeping you from doing it on a regular basis, Groupons have given us a regular rationale.”

Daily voucher companies, restaurateurs and relationship counselors say they’ve seen increasing signs that an online trend that started with the young, single and socially networked has emerged as a useful tool for harried marrieds, spurring them to address one of the most common, and most ignored, bits of good-relationship advice: Carve out some time alone.

Greg Jones, a couples’ therapist in the District, has long counseled just about every pair he sees to make room for quality “couple time” amid the chores of daily life, often to no avail. That has changed for some of his bargain-hunting clients.

“I began to see it about two years ago,” said Jones. “People get stuck in their routines, but then they start getting these daily e-mails from Groupon and LivingSocial with suggestions about restaurants and weekend getaways that are sparking their interest.”

Jones has begun to include the deal-of-the-day thread in his counseling, sending along offers he thinks might strike a chord. He has seen clients shake off years of take-out-Chinese lethargy, not just with nights on the town but with discounted skydiving and hot-air balloon trips.

“Just minimizing the financial factor is important,” Jones said. “Taking a hot-air balloon ride can be a bit overwhelming, but at 60 percent off, it’s not so bad.”

John Seelke, 37, a math instructor at the University of Maryland, said his robust Groupon habit has almost doubled the pace at which he and his wife go out together, even with twin 3-year-old girls. The new parents quickly realized that (a) they were going to have make every effort to create a few baby-free hours together and (b) it was going to be expensive.

“Fifty bucks for dinner and 50 bucks for a babysitter and suddenly you’ve got a $100 bill for the evening,” Seelke said.

Cheap nights out

But with as many as a dozen Internet coupons in hand at any one time, the Seelkes have gone from monthly outings to one every week or 10 days. “Taking 50 percent off the dinner really makes it work. Now when we’re going out, instead of thinking about where we want to go, it’s what Groupons or LivingSocials do we have.”

He has bought recent coupons for Buck’s Fishing and Camping in Chevy Chase and a Fandango discount for two movie tickets in Silver Spring. Sometimes they just swim laps together at the university pool before a quick cut-rate bite somewhere. Recently it was lunch at Ming’s in Chinatown, close to his wife’s job at the Congressional Research Service.

Occasionally the couple suffer Groupon gridlock, when they have purchased more deals than they can make time for and some are about to expire. More than once they have had to sell them, often at a loss, on e-mail groups or online trading sites. Sometimes just they take the loss.

“Oh yeah, I’ve gotten in trouble a few times,” said Seelke. “My wife will stand there with the credit card bill in her hand and say, ‘Okay, you need to stop buying Groupons.’ But overall the time we get together has been great for our relationship.”

There’s increasing research to back that up. Last week, the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project released a study showing that couples who go out together at least once a week are about three times more likely to report being “very happy” in their relationships, compared with spouses who spend less couple time together. They have better sex lives, too, and are less likely to get divorced.

The together time doesn’t have to be in a trendy restaurant or hot-air balloon gondola, said W. Brad Wilcox, co-author of the study. As long as you are focused as much on your spouse as you are on your kids, your work or your iPhone Scrabble games, it counts.

“We’re talking about talking to each other face to face,” said Wilcox. “It can just be playing a game after the kids go to bed.”

A ticking deadline

But parents have learned how hard it is to get the Monopoly going when one spouse is already asleep on a Star Wars bedspread with a copy of “Good Night Moon” on his chest. Having a coupon that you paid $25 for ticking away seems to sharpen the mind, or least keep it awake long enough for a nice meal.

Groupon and LivingSocial say they don’t have marketing data on how many of their buyers are married couples. (LivingSocial is headed by Tim O’Shaughnessy, the son-in-law of Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.)

But Groupon spokeswoman Julie Mossler said the date-night trend has emerged as a clear favorite among users, with dozens of e-mails from relieved spouses taped to the wall of the customer service office of the company’s Chicago headquarters.

“We’ve got some really heartfelt ones, people writing to say Groupon helped save my marriage,” said Mossler. “People use them to get off the couch and get out of a rut.”

In the Schaffers’ case, the online deals allowed the couple to harness Howie’s passion for bargain hunting in the service of getting out more. Previously, Rachel had been the social planner, but the calendar really filled up when he began printing out one restaurant discount after another.

“It’s really been a great incentive,” said Rachel.

Vouchers in hand, they have been to some old favorites (Samantha’s in Silver Spring) and some higher-end classics (Brasserie Beck on K Street). They’ve even hit a hip upstart (Kushi in Mount Vernon Square, although babysitter pressures meant they were eating at 6 p.m. “Way too early to be cool,” said Howie.)

Some restaurants have noticed the date-night effect. During a recent Groupon offering at Kincaid’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, waiter Tom Kahoe noted how many of those redeeming the certificate were couples who clearly seemed to be enjoying a rare treat.

“They would say how it was so nice be taken care of and just how happy they were to be out,” said Kahoe, an 18-year veteran of the downtown brasserie. He remembers one woman who asked for a dessert recommendation that would travel well.

“I suggested the chocolate dacquoise and she said, ‘Perfect. I want to take it home to the babysitter.’ ”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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