“Please read the first three chapters before Wednesday.”
I handed my boyfriend, Scott, an aggressively annotated copy of Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. He’s a software engineer, disciplined but hilarious, with a thick auburn beard. We live together in San Francisco.
He groaned. I didn’t blame him. I had committed both of us to reading the book and going on eight therapist-designed dates without asking him first.
Welcome to life as the boyfriend of a dating coach. We’ve been dating for the past four years, so he’s used to serving as my guinea pig, helping me test relationship advice and the latest research before I make recommendations to my clients.
Six months after we started dating, he agreed to attend a couples workshop by The Gottman Institute called The Art and Science of Love. Two years later, he helped me pilot an event I created called Couples Day, a cell phone-free day of activities designed to help partners connect.
This thoughtful, research-backed approach to relationships is all part of what I like to call “intentional love.” Through these activities, we’ve had many intense conversations about challenging subjects. I didn’t think I had much left to learn about Scott.
I was wrong.
As we made our way through the eight dates, we shared long-forgotten stories from our childhoods, rediscovered the power of rituals, revealed our fears about money and sex, debated how many kids we wanted, and shared our dreams. By the end, we agreed it made our relationship stronger.
What are the eight dates?
This book walks couples through eight conversation-based dates to help them strengthen their connection and discover new things about each other.
The dates were designed by John and Julie Gottman, along with their co-authors Doug and Rachel Abrams. John has spent the last four decades studying thousands of couples to understand what makes some relationships thrive and others fail. Julie is an award-winning clinical psychologist who’s worked with thousands of individuals and couples. They’re leaders in the world of love and relationships.
Each chapter includes research, suggested activities, and written exercises.
Here are the themes:
- Trust & Commitment
- Addressing Conflict
- Sex & Intimacy
- Work & Money
- Fun & Adventure
- Growth & Spirituality
I recommend reading the book chapter by chapter as you go on the dates.
If you don’t want to buy two copies of the book, you can download the worksheets for free here. We printed out two copies and filled those out, instead of doing them in the book.
Why schedule a date to talk about sex?
I doubt your idea of a fun date night is discussing the things you fight about or examining why you’re a saver or a spender. We rarely set aside time in our busy lives to discuss life’s hardest topics.
I used to operate the same way. But my perspective on this changed a few years ago when I interviewed several divorce lawyers about the common reasons couples get divorced, aside from infidelity or money issues.
They said when couples are considering marriage, they are often so fond of each other that they assume the other person wants the same things in life as they do. Their optimism convinces them there’s no reason to talk explicitly about decisions like where to live or if they want children. Unfortunately, by the time they discover their incompatibility on some of these fundamental values, they’re already married.
Eight Dates provides an excellent framework to help couples have these easy-to-avoid but crucial conversations.
Date One: “Lean on Me: Trust & Commitment”
What we did: To set the mood for a conversation about trust, Scott and I took turns blindfolding one another and guiding each other around the house. I added surprises like feeding him broccoli stems he’d pickled, and having him step in and out of our empty bathtub. Then we sat down and looked at our worksheets. First we shared what we cherished about the other person, then we went through a series of questions about what trust and commitment mean to us.
What we learned: We’ve worked hard to build a strong foundation of trust, so we spent most of the evening discussing commitment. Scott’s parents are deeply connected, and he explained to me that their relationship is his “functional template” for marriage. Then he asked me how I define romance. To me, romance is the opposite of efficiency. Since we’re both planners with a tendency to let our to-do lists run our lives, it feels romantic to do spontaneous and fun things, just for the sake of connecting, like catching a last-minute movie at the independent theater near our house.
Date Two: “Agree To Disagree: Addressing Conflict”
What we did: Scott cooked a delicious edamame pasta, then we ventured out to a local coffee shop to share a vanilla rooibos tea, worksheets in tow. The exercise asked us to review 25 common conflicts — like differences in punctuality, independence, and ambition — and circle the ones relevant to our relationship, then compare and discuss.
What we learned: The exercise led to a great insight about how we approach keeping the house clean. I tend to let the house turn into a disaster zone over several days, and then clean up all at once, during a podcast-fueled spree. Scott explained that when I let the house get messy, he feels like I’m saying that I think my time is more valuable than his. I understood his perspective and committed to taking the time to tidy up daily, so that Scott doesn’t have to forge a path to the bathroom through piles of shoes and books.
Date Three: “Let’s Get It On: Sex & Intimacy”
What we did: The book suggests a fancy, candlelit dinner, but that sort of contrived romance never felt authentic to us. The at-home option is to strip down and have a naked date in the living room, bedroom, or backyard (clothing optional, depending on your neighbors). Scott cooked miso soup from scratch while I tried to set a romantic vibe. Instead, I created a fire hazard (pictured). The sex date got us talking about what we like, what we want, and how we can enhance our sex life.
What we learned: I wasn’t expecting it, but this was by far our hardest date. Sex is a sensitive topic for most people. It might have been the subject matter, or perhaps we were just in a bad mood, but this date veered off course in an unproductive way. Although I won’t kiss and tell, it’s important to know that sometimes these conversations aren’t easy. For those of you going through the eight dates, I recommend taking a break from each other for 20 minutes anytime you find yourself or your partner getting flooded so you can reset.
Date Four: “The Cost Of Love: Work & Money”
What we did: Scott cooked an elaborate dinner of avocado, roasted sweet potatoes with cumin, and roasted cauliflower topped with homemade tahini. (He’s a prolific vegan chef, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.) We stayed home and discussed our family histories with money, what money means to us now, and how we’ll handle our finances together in the future.
What we learned: It’s fascinating to hear not only how someone spends or saves, but why they’ve developed those habits. My favorite question asked about our most painful childhood memories around money. I once had a middle school meltdown because my spoiled neighbor received 10 shimmery MAC eyeshadows — the sixth-grade equivalent of a Rolex — from her parents for Valentine’s Day. What kind of parents give their kids presents on Valentine’s Day?!
Scott shared a hilarious story about how his mom refused to buy him JNCO jeans — the pinnacle of fashion for middle schoolers in the late ’90s. This led us down the rabbit hole and we Googled the jeans (here). No wonder his mother refused to buy them.
Finances can be a taboo topic but this date’s thoughtful questions made it easy to discuss both the lighthearted and more serious side of money.
Date Five: “Room To Grow: Family”
What we did: The book instructed us to have the date in a location with kids around. The rain interrupted our plan to go to Dolores Park, so we visited a coffee shop frequented by couples with young children. Amidst the screams of crying children, we discussed what our ideal family looks like.
What we learned: On this date, we discovered Scott only wants one child, and I would like two. He’s an only child and I have a sister, and we both want to recreate the sibling dynamic (or lack thereof) we had growing up. Our family-focused date suddenly turned competitive, as we each argued the merits of our respective childhoods. Scott expressed his belief that it’s morally questionable to add more than one child to an overpopulated planet, while I argued that having a sibling automatically enrolls you in 10,000 hours of training in emotional intelligence. Even though we didn’t see eye to eye on this major point, I’m happy we identified our differing views and we can continue discussing it in the future.
One thing we both agreed on is not wanting a kid who requires a list of instructions every time he has a playdate at someone’s house. “Remember, Tommy can’t have citrus after 10 a.m. or he gets hives!” (But Scott’s a picky eater and I’m an extreme planner/listmaker, so I’m 90 percent sure we will have a kid who comes with instructions.)
Date Six: “Play With Me: Fun & Adventure”
What we did: We started the day with a high-intensity workout class with Daniel Martinez, our favorite instructor. We had fun pairing up for partner exercises. Afterwards, we hit up Beloved, one of our favorite spots for healthy brunch, and talked about our favorite ways to enjoy life. For this date, we’d each filled out a worksheet in advance on what activities we find fun. We discussed how to add more adventure and play into our lives.
What we learned: We’d both let fun move to the bottom of our to-do list. We’re focused on our careers right now, and had forgotten the importance of doing things just for the sake of enjoyment. On this date, we did what we do best: strategize ways to prioritize fun in the future. For example, we love working out, and we used to do TRX on Saturday mornings but the ritual faded when our favorite teacher switched studios. We recommited to joint workouts, and also decided to try hosting more group dinners for our friends. It was exciting to discuss bigger plans, too, like taking a trip to Sri Lanka.
Date Seven: “Something to Believe In: Growth & Spirituality”
What we did: The date called for us to make a physical tribute to the other person. We decided to make a photo collage on Mint to hang in our bedroom. We journeyed to the past as we went through old vacation photos, Snapchat screenshots, and silly videos. After finishing the collage, we answered questions about rituals of connection and life goals.
What we learned: It was fun to laugh and reminisce over photos and reflect on how we’ve grown up together over the last four years. I think this date will vary greatly for each couple depending on how religious or spiritual they are. One revelation was how much weekly Shabbat dinners meant to me growing up, and how I’d like to recreate that ritual in our future family.
Date Eight: “A Lifetime of Love: Dreams”
We we did: The book suggested meeting somewhere with a beautiful, aspirational view. We went to Scott’s office building over the weekend and took the elevator to the 37th floor. Looking out over the Bay Bridge, we answered questions about our dreams.
What we learned: Scott and I have had several in-depth conversations about our dreams over the years. So while we didn’t uncover any big surprises on this date, it felt good to take the time to write them down and share them. I learned a few quirky things about Scott, like how he wanted to be a cartoonist when he grew up and was voted “best dancer” for his eighth-grade superlatives. I thanked him for supporting my dream of quitting my corporate job to pursue my passion for dating and relationships.
Peering down at the city of San Francisco, the place where we’ve shared the past four years and plan to spend many more, this felt like the perfect ending to our Eight Dates journey.
What happens after the dates?
It’s all well and good to go on the dates and have these conversations with your partner, but discovering new insights is only the beginning. One lesson from this experience is that we want to go on more — and more intentional — date nights. Moving forward, we’re investing the time and money it takes to go on a proper dinner and a movie date, even though it’s so easy to fall asleep on the couch watching Netflix using his mom’s password. Scott recently surprised me with tickets to Cirque du Soleil (it was a matinee, but you have to start somewhere).
More importantly, we realized that we’ll never stop learning about one another, and we look forward to sharing more about our family histories, spiritual beliefs, financial practices, and yes, sexual preferences.
Last weekend, I curled up on my couch in our living room, surrounded by our dark purple walls and dozens of academic articles. As I clicked my neon green highlighter into position, ready to go to battle with papers on desirability in online dating, I overheard Scott making popcorn in the little machine his mom gave him for his birthday.
First the run of the motor. Then pop. Pause. Pop. Pause. Pop. Pop. Pop. In between a steady stream of pops, I could just barely make out the sound of his voice on a phone call.
Curious who he was talking to, because, like most people our age, we’re afraid of phone calls, I tiptoed over to the hallway separating our living room from the kitchen. Crouched down, I put my ear to the door, and eavesdropped. I could tell from his tone Scott was talking to his dad. Appropriate snack for a conversation with your Pop, right?
He asked him how they decided to have one kid and how he felt about that decision. I’d never heard him talk to his dad about something so serious and intimate. A shy smile crept onto my face. I was proud of him — for being open and vulnerable with his dad. I was proud of us — for completing something challenging and important because we’re invested in each other and our future.
This article first appeared on gottman.com