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 The yet-unpublished study is based on a fun and friendship scale the pair developed, with statements such as "We regularly have great conversations where we just talk as good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."
Marital interaction is also declining, say researchers in the 2007 book Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing. Pennsylvania State University sociologist Paul Amato and colleagues analyzed national surveys of 2,034 married couples in 1980 and a similar sample of 2,100 in 2000. Those who reported "almost always" engaging in certain leisure activities with their spouses dropped.
Markman took a less scientific approach in a solo study he began in the early 1990s of cities with major league baseball teams; he found those cities had a 28 percent lower divorce rate than cities that didn't have teams but had expressed interest in one. Markman, a baseball fan, doesn't claim that watching baseball is responsible for saving marriages, but he does say it offers couples some fun.
Apparently, it's something many couples already know. Scarborough Sports Marketing of New York, which collects consumer information about professional sports, found that more than 3.9 million married women attended a major-league game from August 2006 through September 2007, compared with 2.5 million for professional basketball, football and hockey combined.
San Diegans Georgi Bohrod Gordon, 63, and her husband, Rich Gordon, 62, are avid baseball fans who even go to spring training. She says baseball talk sparks their conversation, even during the rough spots.
"Sometimes when things are getting a little tense -- because they can -- we can say things like, 'How 'bout them Padres?' and we can go back into a very comfortable world of conversation, which then might lead to less tension, and it opens up the doors to a lot of other conversations," she says.
Thomas Bradbury, who co-directs the Marriage and Family Development Laboratory and Relationship Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles, believes having fun together can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for couples: "People in happy relationships generate these activities, and as they generate these activities, it keeps their relationship strong and healthy and fresh."