If you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced your fair share (or more) of binge watching. Streaming platforms are all the rave and our phones offer an entire world at our fingertips that feels pretty irresistible sometimes. And let’s not forget video games, which captivate us with their very effective positive reinforcement and addictive qualities.
The battle with screens is a heavy one.
We battle it in our relationship and we battle it in our parenting.
I hear this conversation often from clients: we want to stop watching so much TV… but we don’t know what else to do with our time. And this problem has become even more challenging while being quarantined in our homes.
But here you are (on a screen) reading a great starter list of pandemic-friendly ideas for alternatives to your screens!
First let’s talk about how to get out of the routine — or autopilot — that seems to capture us in the watch, work, repeat cycle of screen-time.
Routines can be hugely helpful in our lives. They create stability and familiarity that can relieve anxiety and stress. This is probably part of why we fall into them.
Also they’re easy.
But if you’re reading this, you’re probably wanting something different. Likely your routine isn’t working anymore. It isn’t intentional or fulfilling. It doesn’t make you feel more alive.
You’re wanting more fun and less autopilot. So before we get into your options of new things to do together, let’s talk about how to set you up for success as you attempt to change your autopilot.
Have you ever heard of habit stacking? Habit stacking is when you add a new habit onto an already existing habit. It is incredibly effective in creating new routines for our days. But what happens when we are trying to break out of our routine?
We need to try a new way of habit stacking.
Our autopilot routines (especially when habit stacked) are like a fast moving highway with no exits. Once we get on the road, we’re on it for the long haul. But as you start to make small changes to break up your stacked habits, each small change acts as an exit ramp — allowing you to consciously choose to stay on this highway or to find a new route.
Here’s a couple examples of this fast-moving “highway habits” with no exits:
Change the Coffee Habit
Let’s say you tend to stop for coffee every morning at the same local coffee shop and you decide to start saving that money to buy a new mattress instead. Your highway habit is the stopping for coffee. It will probably take some time before you stop accidentally driving there (on autopilot) on your way to work. After all, your body is trained to head towards that coffee.
But if you switch up your route to work (or you bring a coffee from home), you’re changing the habits leading up to your coffee shop. You’re creating exit ramps and finding a new route (maybe literally) that allows you to change this habit. Soon you’ll have a new mattress!
Change How you Respond in Perpetual Conflicts
Or maybe you and your partner (just like every other couple in the world) stumble into one of those arguments that seems to go in circles. You’re both spinning your wheels getting nowhere and it feels like you’re saying the same thing over and over.
These conflicts have a pattern and a rhythm to them — so much so, that you feel like you know exactly what your partner is going to say next. Your highway habit is how you respond in these circular perpetual conflicts. It will take some time and practice to find a new way to respond. Your body is trained to head towards winning — or just repeating yourself.
But if you switch up what you say or how you say it, you’re changing the habits that make up those circular conflicts. You’re creating exit ramps and finding a new route that allows you to change this habit. When you change your role in the argument, your partner will have to change their role, too. Soon you’ll have less frustrating conflict!
In order to have more fun and intimacy in your relationship, you need to find a new route. Here are some ways to create your exit ramps.
Change your environment
If your screen-time usually starts with settling onto the couch in your pajamas, try changing your environment. Make your couch off limits and perhaps stay in your daytime clothes. Hang out at the kitchen table instead, or wrap yourselves in blankets and sit on the porch.
Even small tricks like putting the TV remote or controller in a different room might help change the environment enough to create an exit ramp. If you really want to watch one show, set a sleep timer so the TV turns off automatically after 30 minutes.
Changing the lighting can also work. Instead of dimming the lights, keep them bright. Instead of using the TV for noise, put some music on the stereo.
Change the timing
If your evenings have an order to them, switch it up! Maybe you usually sit on the couch first, do your screen thing, and brush your teeth at the end of the night. Try changing the order. What would happen if you brushed your teeth first? If you usually put your phone on the charger at bedtime, try doing it before dinner.
Change your activity
Now to the fun part. You’ve created a few different exit ramps to allow you to consciously and intentionally create opportunities for changes in your routine. But what to do with your new time? Where will this route take you? Here are some ideas.
As you read through these, know that if they are completely out of your normal world of experience, they might feel a little awkward or silly — or maybe even entirely uninteresting. But don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
1. Play a board game
If you know me, you probably knew this would be first on the list. Playing the right kind of game (we aren’t talking about Monopoly and Uno here) has the potential to truly improve your relationship in so many more ways than just adding fun (there are actually 9 reasons why board games could save your marriage — but you’ll have to wait for the next article to read these).
If you aren’t much of a gamer, I’ll post another article soon with some of my favorite two-player board games that will help you break into the tabletop gaming world.
2. Enjoy some tea time
Or coffee, juice, chocolate milk, lemon water… whatever. Preferably not alcohol for this one so that the focus isn’t on the drink, it’s on the two of you. The trick for this one is to put your phones far away from you. Maybe in the other room, or at least out of reach. Just sit and chat.
But just sitting down together without phones doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished this one. The conversations here need to be of a different variety than your normal day-to-day life — which is where most of us gravitate when we get a few minutes together.
So here’s your list of what not to talk about:
Things on the to-do list
Any sort of logistics about managing the household
With these topics off-the-table, it might feel weird at first. You may not know what to talk about. If you need some ideas, I highly recommend a book that lists questions for couples — like this one that is called “Questions for Couples”…! Conversation starter cards are another great option; I really like the TableTopics cards and if you’re wanting to get the whole family into it, try Our Moments.
3. Move your bodies
This could mean sex… but in case one of you is not in the mood for sex, there are a million other ways to move your bodies and get connected! You can start playing Just Dance (you don’t need a game console for this, just a computer and smartphones as controllers will work). Try setting up a hopscotch space in your driveway or your living room. You could work out together, take a bike ride, have a water gun fight, or even find out if you can still skateboard! Who doesn’t love a good game of Twister?
4. Read to each other
You have so many options here, but the trickiest part might be finding something interesting to both of you. Try a hilariously crude “bro” retelling of mythology, open up conversations about your parenting values and living more simply, or enjoy a novel that could also improve your relationship. You could even read each other some poetry or erotica. Read about the institution of racism or sustainable farming. If you have no idea where to start, browse your local bookstore to find some new ideas and settle on something that intrigues both of you. A lot of local libraries offer book suggestions or a “blind date” book to introduce new authors you might enjoy and are even available for curbside pick up.
5. Listen to comedy
This was one of our favorite things to do during dinner before our kids were mobile. Look around on YouTube or Spotify for some comedians that you like and enjoy hit-or-miss jokes while making eye contact together.
6. Make something
Music, models, movies, or even a grocery list! You could even get a subscription to a monthly date night “box” that sends you crafts and activities to do together.
7. Paint together
Similar to making something but a little more specific, start painting together! Some interesting research suggests that couples who paint together get some great hits of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”. Even more interestingly, the men in that study reported painting to be more relaxing and enjoyable than even board games!
8. Listen to a podcast
Whether you try something entertaining and informative (like “Armchair Expert” with Dax Shepard or “The Joe Rogan Experience” with Joe Rogan), a lecture series (maybe from Kim Payne of “Simplicity Parenting” or choose your own “Great Course” out of hundreds) or some spooky storytelling (like “Old Gods of Appalachia”), these can keep you connected, give you new things to talk about, and perhaps have you snuggled together in the dark and jumping at any noises you hear.
9. Try a new recipe
Trying new dinners can be a little intimidating because they seem to have more pressure to go well — and more moving parts. But maybe try making a new dessert together. Look into fancy recipes of things you would normally only order in restaurants and see what you can come up with. There are even some great meal delivery services that provide all the necessary ingredients and give step-by-step directions for scrumptious new dishes. If it doesn’t work out, make sure to have some Oreos and a glass of milk on hand so you can laugh over how terrible it was.
10. Take a drive
My partner and I had completely forgotten about this one when COVID started… and it only took us ten months to remember! Some of our best conversations used to come from car rides. While I’m all for eye contact (check out #11 below), there’s something really helpful sometimes about conversations when you’re engaged in other activities and perhaps not making eye contact.
11. Try 4-minutes of uninterrupted eye contact
And yes, this is as weird as it sounds. More than 25 years ago, a psychologist named Arthur Aron studied “interpersonal closeness” and 6 months after a particular study including 4-minutes of uninterrupted eye contact and 90-minutes of open-ended questions, two of the participants got married.
Ever since then, fascination with uninterrupted eye contact has permeated our culture with everything from a New York Times article in 2015 (written by a woman who repeated the experiment…and also fell in love), an uninterrupted eye contact experiment hosted by Glamour (watch the video, it makes me cry every time), and an entire community with the intention to unite us through eye contact. Grand Rapids even hosted an uninterrupted eye contact experiment for strangers on the Blue Bridge back in 2017.
So go ahead. Try this one. Set your timer for 4 minutes and look into each other’s eyes. Laugh, cry, blink (definitely blink, this isn’t a staring contest) and remember why you fell in love.
12. Build legos… or just play
Maybe you thought the silly recommendations were over but wait, there’s legos. This really doesn’t need to be legos, but it could be! You could also build a tower with blocks, pasta boxes, or shoes. Turn your pots and pans into musical instruments. Do a fashion show for each other — but let your partner decide what pieces go together (and maybe add the Halloween costumes and other props to the mix). Have a snowball fight. Scoot down the stairs in your sleeping bags (carefully). Build a fort. Play catch.
You know, play! If you’re a parent, these might not sound as exciting to you. But if you try them without the kids, they still might feel new and different enough that you’ll be surprised! Consciously playing for yourself can sometimes feel very different from playing for your kids.
There you have it. 12 new ideas for date night… or whenever you get 4 minutes alone. If you’re feeling skeptical about these, set your eye-rolling aside and step into the silliness. What do you have to lose?
These 12 new ways of creating fun and intimacy in your relationship might be especially helpful if one of you has ADHD. When your partner has ADHD, you probably often feel less interesting and important to them than, well, everything else in their world. (Of course this isn’t the case; it’s just how ADHD impacts relationships. If this resonates for you, read my article about the ADHD effect on marriage and check out Melissa Orlov’s book.)
Trying new activities together might be just the thing to help draw their attention back in and help it feel like those early courting days again.
Also, remember that not every moment needs to be spent connecting in quality ways together. My partner and I have tried all of these and we continue to return to them when we notice everything is feeling “a little too routine.”
I’ll be the first to say that after a week of jump starting our relationship back into intentional connection each night, we sometimes really crave a quiet few hours on the couch, doing our own separate activities joyously.
The coolest part about those 12 ways to have more fun and intimacy is that intentional connections aren’t just for the moment — they seem to have a hangover effect. Which means that when we sit on the couch doing our own thing, it can still feel connecting.
Oh, and after all of that? We might turn on the TV for a night.