Most couples know their marriages are happier when they make time to have fun. But often it's the fun that's first to fall by the wayside as demands pile up, especially in a trying economy when couples often work long hours or hold down more than one job.
Now research from the University of Denver supports the idea that finding moments to be together free of financial, family or other stresses -- just to have fun together -- is not an indulgence.
"The more you invest in fun and friendship and being there for your partner, the happier the relationship will get over time," says Howard Markman, a psychologist who co-directs the university's Center for Marital and Family Studies.
"The correlation between fun and marital happiness is high, and significant."
For men, the connection is even more important, the researchers say. They found that men are more likely than women to call their spouse their best friend.
Markman and co-director Scott Stanley in 1996 began a long-term study of 306 Denver-area couples. The yet-unpublished study is based on a fun and friendship scale the pair developed, with statements such as "We regularly have great conversations where we just talk as good friends," and "My partner really listens to me when I have something important to say." They analyzed questionnaires from a subset of the sample -- 197 couples in their second year of marriage.
The research adds to findings published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by psychologist Arthur Aron of State University of New York-Stony Brook and colleagues. They showed that sharing in new and exciting activities is consistently associated with better relationships.
Markman, who conducts couples retreats, says individual leisure activities, such as watching TV or using the Internet, don't build those positive connections.
Other relationship experts agree. "The thing we're working for is to have fun and relaxation and enjoyment together, and then we're contaminating it," says Les Parrott, a psychology professor at Seattle Pacific University and co-author of relationship books.
One of the reasons couples have trouble is that they have different takes on fun and bonding, Parrott says. "Intimacy and friendship for a man is built on shared activity, but for women, shared activity is a backdrop for a great conversation. What she wants on date night is a time of intimacy and friendship. He's disappointed because she'll never go to a game or golfing, and it's during shared activities that his spirit is most likely to open up."
Gender differences also showed up in another study by the Denver researchers. They asked a random phone sample of 908 people how long it had been since they had been on a date with their spouse; women, on average, said it had been twice as long as men. (In couples married 11 to 19 years, women said 17.8 weeks, and men said nine.)
"Males and females have different definitions of what a date is," Markman says. "Females' definition is much more planned in advance and the husband puts more effort into it. For a guy, grabbing coffee -- that's a date."