How do you keep your marriage strong?
Courtship should not end with marriage, some couples say.
They make it a point to go on regular dates with each other and say prioritising the spousal relationship provides the bedrock for a secure family environment, even though it can be challenging to carve out such couple time.
The value of date nights is backed by research, says Ms Judith Alagirisamy, a family life specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore.
She cites a study in recent years by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in the United States.
The study found that married couples who spent time together every week were significantly more likely to report being “very happy” in their relationships, compared with others who did not have such regular time together.
Having such one-on-one time helps foster resilient relationships at a time when divorce rates are increasing, says Ms Alagirisamy.
“The key to remaining close as a couple is to consistently make time for each other and show their spouse that he or she matters,” she adds.
“On a daily basis, married couples can start simple habits such as a morning text message to encourage their spouse or have an intentional conversation as they unwind before bedtime.”
Here’s how four couples do it.
Going on lunch dates
Almost every day at work, Mr Kua Soon Khe, 65, takes a 20-minute bus ride to meet his wife, Madam Ng Mui Fong, 63 (both pictured above), for lunch.
They have been having these lunch dates since 1982.
Mr Kua is the chief executive of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, which is located in Geylang, while Madam Ng is an executive secretary at the Rubber Trade Association of Singapore, whose office is in the Central Business District.
They have rarely missed a lunch date, barring overseas trips or work functions. Madam Ng adds that every three months, she has lunch with her former schoolmates instead.
“It’s an ingrained routine. Without it, I feel something is missing,” says Mr Kua, who is also a council member of Families for Life, an organisation that promotes strong families.
“Marriage is a lifelong commitment. We can have our differences, but when we choose our partners, we should cherish them. You have to keep the relationship fresh.”
Married for 40 years, the couple, who met at university, have two adult daughters and a three-year-old grandson.
Even when work was at its most hectic, during the 1980s and 1990s, when Mr Kua worked at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Hill Street, he still met his wife, who was working at Boat Quay then, for lunch, somewhere midway between their offices.
“I need some protected time for myself. I find it’s a relief,” he says.
“We need to have some time for ourselves, otherwise, if I am burnt out, how can I manage a family?”
He says they do not often have stereotypically “romantic” date nights out.
“Because we are conservative Chinese, we don’t express our affections too openly. No open embraces, hugging or kissing. It’s not in our upbringing,” he adds.
Madam Ng says she feels fortunate to have such a kind spouse.
They usually have lunch together at places such as Lau Pa Sat hawker centre or at Japanese eateries near Cecil Street.
They sometimes share an ice kacang dessert, each offering the other the few pieces of delicious attap chee.
Taking couple trips to recharge
Educators Nicholas and Valerie Pinto (pictured above) have three sons, aged 16, 14 and 12, who occasionally ask if they can tag along on their parents’ overseas trips together.
Mr Pinto, 42, says: “They ask sometimes, ‘Why can’t we come along? Don’t you love us?’ We say we do, but we love each other first.”
Every year, besides one regional trip with each other that lasts a few days, the couple also have a family trip with their children. The couple went to Phuket last year and will be heading to Palawan in the Philippines next month.
Their regular dinner date is “the highlight of the week” for Mr Pinto, who also takes walks every weekend with his wife.
Mrs Pinto, 44, explains why they make having couple time a priority, saying: “We have to be close first, that’s how the children understand what love and marriage is about. They have to see it for themselves.
“We build a strong foundation and it cascades down to the kids. It creates a stable home environment, seeing a loving couple relationship as opposed to quarrelling.”
Taking trips together gives them more time than a two-hour dinner date, she says. Besides recharging and enjoying each other’s company, they make some important decisions on their travels, she adds.
For example, they decided to take a six-month-long certified course on marriage and family after their trip to Phuket last September.
Going on dates also helps in delving straight into conversations, even about sensitive topics such as finances. Because of a deep bond, you know you will not be judged, says Mr Pinto.
Married for about 18 years, they started to spend more time together about eight years ago, after realising the demands of parenting and work meant they were drifting apart.
Mr Pinto says: “We were always exhausted and our conversations were not deep. The flame wasn’t burning as bright.”
While it is challenging for many married couples to find the time to date, Mrs Pinto says having a long-term perspective helps in maintaining the spousal connection.
“What’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years, when the children are grown up and you are strangers to each other?” she says.
Mr Pinto adds that it is about investing in what matters. “We invest in insurance, in a home, but do we really invest in our spouses?”
Learning new skills as a couple
Since 2009, Ms Cheryl Ng, 55, and her husband, Mr Andy Sim, 59, have been taking dance classes together. Originally invited by friends, they have since learnt many dances such as the waltz and the cha cha, the tango and the quickstep.
“It’s a new way of communicating,” says Ms Ng, who works part-time as an associate lecturer at a polytechnic and as a principal trainer at Focus on the Family Singapore. Mr Sim is director of digital innovation at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. They have four daughters, aged between 19 and 27, and a three-month-old grandson.
Learning different dance steps for the man and the woman means having to be clued in to each other’s non-verbal nuances and knowing when to move together or apart.
Stepping on toes to keep marriage strong
“When couples learn to dance, you step on each other’s feet. One step wrong and you can get upset with each other. We talk about it,” says Ms Ng, adding that her husband once kicked her by accident and broke her toenail.
Going on such weekly dance dates is a way to grow together and learn new skills as a couple, besides keeping the marriage strong, they say.
“When couples first meet, they are on a path of discovering each other. For some, that process stops. You need to connect to continue to grow together,” says Ms Ng.
Mr Sim adds: “You can learn more about each other when you are relaxed. In every relationship, communication is No. 1.”
To keep their marriage strong, they also go on dates together to the spa or on cruises, as well as have dinner or watch arts performances together.
But when their children were younger, requiring more intensive care, it was difficult for them to set aside time for regular dates and their outings together were more ad hoc. “We did not have a weekly date for close to 15 years,” says Ms Ng.
She recalls feeling guilty about being out on a date when her eldest was one year old.
Early on, they had to set ground rules not to talk about buying diapers or anything routine about the children when they spent time only with each other.
Having experienced bonding with each other through going on dates, they are paying it forward to help their children keep their own marriages strong.
They cared for their grandson during their eldest daughter’s confinement period, so the new mother could go on a date with her husband.
Taking marriage course
When a friend suggested that Ms Joy Koh and Mr Gregory Fok attend a course for married couples, Mr Fok felt it would be a good idea to keep the marriage strong – for his wife.
“I thought it would be good for her to hear from other people that she had to change,” says Mr Fok, who works as a certified financial planner. “After the course, I realised that the change had to begin not with her, but with myself.”
They took the course two years after the first of their three daughters was born. Tricia is now 10, Sarah, seven, and Clare, one.
The Couple Empowerment Programme, which is based on their Catholic faith, taught Ms Koh, 36, and Mr Fok, 39, the importance of the spousal relationship and keeping their marriage strong. After the programme, they started to prioritise spending time together, going on dates and overseas trips.
He says: “There were issues that we were not comfortable with, but which we had swept under the carpet. Husbands generally feel neglected when the kids come around.”
Among other things, they learnt to listen to each other without becoming defensive and realised that they had not discussed issues such as clashing parenting styles.
For example, deciding how to celebrate Tricia’s first birthday caused tensions as Ms Koh came from a family where birthdays were important celebrations, while Mr Fok’s family did not have big birthday dos.
Ms Koh, who works part-time at the Family Life Society charity, says: “Initially, I felt very bad going on our dates. I thought that whenever I had time, I had to spend it with my children.
“Later, I realised the relationship with the spouse should come first. If the children see us together and in sync with each other, they will feel more secure and be emotionally more stable.”
At least once a week, they have a meal together to keep their marriage strong. They have a date once in two months at a restaurant and have gone to places such as South Africa and Rome on incentive trips organised by Mr Fok’s company.
Besides enjoying themselves on their dates, they take the opportunity to talk about serious issues that they do not wish to bring up in front of the kids, such as parenting concerns or talking about in-laws.
“The programme in 2010 made it clear to us that divorce was not an option and that we would work things out. I became less fearful of bringing up sensitive topics with him,” says Ms Koh.
Their two older daughters encourage them to go on dates. Ms Koh has also been taking Tricia and Sarah out separately since they started primary school.
She says: “They like the one-on-one time when they can open up and talk about anything. That’s also how they see the importance of our couple dates.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
(Photos of Pinto and Kua families: ST, other photos: 123RF.com)